Stop the presses? On second thought, let them keep running. The headline on B1 can read, "Gannett (NYSE:GCI) posts record earnings for fiscal 2003." These results aren't exactly front-page news for the company that operates America's biggest daily, USA Today.

Sure, fourth-quarter earnings per share were up 1.6% to $1.31. And 2003's earnings hit $4.46, for 3.5% growth. Granted, that's better than last year, and it's rosier than some might have predicted a few months back when global instability was making media companies positively (or is that negatively?) skittish about their future ad revenue.

But Gannett's numbers are really no flashier than those posted recently by peers such as Knight Ridder's (NYSE:KRI) mediocre gains, or The New York Times Co.'s (NYSE:NYT) snoozers last week. Oddball Tribune (NYSE:TRB) did a little better than the rest.

Like The Times, Gannett posted decent revenue increases in its newspaper division, with USA Today leading the charge on a 10% increase in the fourth quarter. And similar to its big apple counterpart, Gannett's broadcast division produced painful numbers, with a 14% sales decline for Q4. But these little wiggles in the income sheets don't get to the core of the issue: the flat economy.

Over the past couple of years, the news giants have squeezed out their excesses pretty well. It's no easy task for them to turn a profit these days. So, as Fool colleague Alyce Lomax pointed out about Knight Ridder, what these media conglomerates need is a robust economy to jumpstart their real revenue streams: display and classified ads. Until this happens, upcoming earnings reports are going to look a lot like yesterday's news.

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Reach Seth Jayson via email .