Like many other newspaper-focused media companies, New York Times (NYSE:NYT) has seen its stock in the doldrums -- down more than 20% over the past year and near a 52-week low.

Looking at the first-quarter earnings report, it's hard to see how or why investors are going to get very excited about this company any time soon. Total revenue grew less than 1%, and ad spending, although up, was pretty soft.

Expenses, though, grew about 4% over last year. Newsprint costs were up about 6.6% over last year as the company balanced a 9.9% price hike with 3.3% lower usage. Higher distribution costs, wages, and the expensing of options also contributed to the higher expenses for the quarter.

Interestingly, ad revenue growth seems to be spotty across the company's divisions. While the New York Times group showed 0.8% growth in ad revenue, the New England group showed a 4.2% decline, and the Regional group showed a 7.2% increase. So, it would appear that the smaller markets are seeing firmer ad spending trends than the larger markets.

Looking ahead, the management certainly has some work to do if it wants to get the stock moving in the right direction. Although it sees ad revenue growing at a mid-single-digit clip for the full year, tighter expense control is going to be important if that is to translate into any sort of profit growth.

On the brighter side, this is a company that takes reasonably good care of its shareholders (the absence of a balance sheet and cash flow statement in the earnings release notwithstanding). Not only does the company pay out a pretty reasonable percentage of its earnings as dividends but also it has been active in repurchasing its own shares. To that end, unlike many companies that repurchase shares just to keep up with the pace of dilution, New York Times actually has been reducing its outstanding share count.

That said, this is a tough company to really get excited about today. While the acquisition may help in the long run, weak ad spending, high debt, and rising expenses are all problematic for the here and now. What's more, the valuation today isn't really a compelling bargain for a company that has grown its free cash flow at a low-teens clip over the past 10 years.

Still, for those investors with an interest in one of the flagships of the Fourth Estate (that being The New York Times itself), I'd suggest keeping a close watch on ad spending and operating margin in the quarters to come.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).