For the past couple of years, there's been a lot of bad news at media conglomerate The New York Times Co. (NYSE:NYT). Along with peers Gannett (NYSE:GCI), Knight Ridder (NYSE:KRI), and The Washington Post Co. (NYSE:WPO), the prolonged economic slump and fears of war and terrorism have conspired to hold back advertising, where most of the newspaper's green is gardened.

It might be too soon to declare the end of the scare, but this morning's fourth-quarter report proves the Times is holding up. Earnings per share rose 5.8% to $0.73, while net income ticked upward 3.1%. The company attributed the success to holiday season advertising sales that were better than expected, but circulation revenues, which represent one-fourth of the revenue pie, also were up 7.3% for the quarter.

Remember the big bad Internet and how it was going to strangle newspapers? Well, the Times seems to have mastered the binary threat. Its "digital business" delivered a nice bump in the year's final quarter. Digital revenues increased 27%, to $25 million, and operating income doubled to $7.2 million. This segment is beginning to rival the firm's withering broadcast business, and may eventually surpass it as the Times' second-largest revenue generator behind newspaper operations.

For the full year, the company produced diluted earnings of $1.98 per share, versus $1.94 for 2002. But there were a few one-time items to consider, resulting in a $0.03 gain this year and a $0.03 charge last year, yielding an overall slim 1% drop for 2003 excluding items.

Guidance for 2004 suggests a similarly slim uptick. The Times currently trades at $47 a stub. That's over 23 times next year's projected earnings, far outpacing the Times' expected single-digit growth. Buy the newspaper. Pass on the stock for now.

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Former newsie ragamuffin Seth Jayson can be reached at .