Writing about TheStreet.com (Nasdaq: TSCM), I often fall prey to automotive analogies:

Today is no different. You know how in highly congested traffic, we're often urged to merge in "zipper" fashion? The first car on the left moves ahead, then the first car on the right, then the second on the left, and so on? Skilled and experienced drivers accomplish the exercise with ease. Where you run into trouble is when a driver who doesn't know what he's doing gets thrown into the mix, and fouls the zipper.

Which brings us to TheStreet.com's Q1 earnings report
Now that you've got the mental picture in your head, let's proceed to how TheStreet.com failed to merge properly in the first quarter. The stock's down 17% on Tuesday, so you know something went wrong.

As management tells the tale, TheStreet.com's revenues raced ahead 31% in Q1. "Marketing Services" led the way with 62% sales growth as TheStreet.com inked deals with big-name partners like Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX) AOL, Verizon (NYSE: VZ), and Outback. "Paid Services" tagged along behind with 14% growth. All of which was true, but note that much of this growth was of the "inorganic" variety. Last year's purchase of Promotions.com provided most of the growth in Marketing Services. Subscription revenue within Paid Services actually declined 2%, and while the rest of the segment flourished, it did so "primarily ... from the acquisition of Bankers Financial Products Corp. in November, 2007."

Back out the inorganic elements, and it's hard to say how much TheStreet.com proper actually grew last quarter. But one thing is sure: The growth wasn't profitable. Sales gains of 31% were eclipsed by growth in the cost of services (up 36%) and in selling, general, and administrative expenses (up 34%). Toss the amortization and depreciation costs in, and TheStreet.com's operating margin tumbled from 17% to 10%, while net profit plunged 19%, resulting in earnings per share of $0.07 (down from $0.11).

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Searching for good news amid the wreckage of TheStreet.com's quarter, I honestly found just one piece of shrapnel that might fit: Free cash flow was up 25% over Q1 2007 at $3.5 million. Combine this factoid with some pretty decent online advertising numbers from Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) recently, and it still seems possible for TheStreet.com to turn things around. But before trying to merge again, these guys have first got to learn to drive.

More news on TheStreet.com:

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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.