It happens to every company sooner or later: Wall Street sets a mark for quarterly earnings, and the company misses that goal. Sometimes, an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. If you've been looking for big names in this column, you may have been disappointed lately. With earnings season in full swing once more, that should change right about now. Today, we get to literally dig in the dirt, take a couple of stripes off a general, and go nuts over bolts. Let's dig in.

Construction problems
Our first miscreant today is infrastructure construction specialist Shaw (NYSE:SGR), which turned in a $0.16 profit per diluted share, after backing out disappointing results in a lawsuit Shaw filed against AES (NYSE:AES) three years ago. On that basis, analysts had hoped for $0.37 per share, making for a whopping 57% miss. But it's better than last year's Q3 net loss of $0.31 per share, and also better than leaving the litigation costs in, which would drop Shaw to a $0.21 net EPS loss.

Revenues were actually pretty good -- up 38% year over year to $1.23 billion, beating the analyst consensus target of $1.19 billion. So why the lower adjusted earnings, then? Management points to unexpectedly high costs in the performance-testing of a completed power plant project, and a canceled $100 million government contract didn't help, either. Then there's the new governmental practice of auditing project expenses before sending out payments (rather than the other way around), which led to $400 million of extra receivables on Shaw's balance sheet this quarter.

On top of that, the previous quarter's financial filings contained two substantial errors, forcing Shaw to revise that period's earnings down by $0.04 per share. The total effect of all of these issues has been a rather brutal mauling of the share price, dropping it 40% from its February high of $36.08.

Given all the company's problems, it might be a fair punishment. But revenues are rising quickly, with a healthy order backlog and rising inventory turnover as well; all of that points to smarter resource management. In addition, the Air Force signed an eight-year contract with Shaw worth at least $6 billion during the quarter, and I'm not sure that the market appreciated that deal properly.

Shaw might be a dog now -- or maybe a lion in disguise. Further due diligence is required, which is fine for me, since I can't buy the stock for 10 days after writing about it. I find the potential opportunity intriguing, and I'll certainly take another look. One final note: 86% of Shaw's revenue is generated by U.S. business, linking the company more tightly to the domestic economy than to global financial health. Invest accordingly.

At ease, General
The next underperformer is general media company Media General (NYSE:MEG), an owner and operator of newspapers, TV network affiliates, and other communications outlets across the country. Media General showed $0.77 of net income from continuing operations per diluted share, but four analysts had set their average sights on $0.82 per share on the same basis. In the year-ago quarter, after backing out gains from selling the company's stake in the Denver Post, the company earned $0.80 per share, so the bottom line is going backwards here.

Revenues of $230 million didn't meet expectations, either; analysts wanted to see $246 million, according to Thomson First Call. Still, the earnings were 3.3% higher than the year-ago period, led by an impressive increase in classified sales, particularly real estate. My hometown newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, is a Media General flagship publication, and this earnings release contained some numbers that gave me food for thought about the local economy. Real estate advertising in the Tribune more than doubled, while car sales were way down year over year, and "help wanted" ads lost 7.2%. Good thing I have a couple of jobs, and none of them in car sales.

Looking at the income statement, it seems that production costs were responsible for the missed earnings number, particularly the costs of producing, printing, and distributing the physical newspapers. But that division remains General's mainstay, bringing in the largest share of income and profits by far. TV broadcasting is higher margin but lower revenue, and the interactive segment (a.k.a. Internet operations) is the fastest-growing division but still runs at a net loss.

Media General is caught up in the general newspaper business malaise that has companies like General, Gannett (NYSE:GCI), and New York Times (NYSE:NYT) trading close to their yearly lows. The company is trying to reinvent itself to some degree, selling some broadcast stations and buying others -- sometimes in the same viewing market -- but I'm not sure there's much management can do about the sad state of traditional publishing today. These businesses play by old rules, and the Internet has proven to be quite a powerful rule breaker.

One washer short of a stud
Our last stray shot this week comes from industrial-supply manufacturer Fastenal (NASDAQ:FAST). The company is literally all about nuts, bolts, and other fastener-related items, and companies like Shaw are among its best customers. But this quarter, Wall Street was hoping for more than Fastenal could deliver, as its $0.34 of profits per diluted share fell short of the average $0.36 analyst target. It's still a 13% increase over the year-ago quarter, and the analysts hit the revenue figure right on the nose at $459 million.

That's 20% year-on sales growth, which is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when coupled with expanding gross margins. Unfortunately, operational costs such as the price of the fuel required to haul tons upon tons of screws and washers to their retail destinations took back much of the gross margin expansion, leading to that missed mark.

Companies like Fastenal and Grainger (NYSE:GWW) are highly cyclical and will largely rise and fall with the economy as a whole. Despite that, Fastenal has delivered solid average returns over the past 10 years, through good times and bad. I see no fundamental reason to shy away from this stock -- apart from a rich valuation, even after the hit the stock took upon the release of these analyst-disappointing earnings. Can a boring bolt manufacturer be an exciting growth story? That's the question you need to answer for yourself before investing in Fastenal.

Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and which really are stuck in the mud. Come back next Monday, and we'll take a look at another batch of mishaps and disappointments. It'll be fun and educational. Promise.

Further Foolishness that won't disappoint:

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns no stock in the companies discussed this week, but he took a break from writing this article to watch the news from Media General's biggest TV station. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy. The iron is probably bolted on with Fastenal parts.