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N.Y. Times to launch local guide

The august newspaper, which is launching its much-anticipated local guide New York Today, is entering a crowded market.

When the New York Times launches New York Today, its localized content site, it will be entering an already competitive market.

The Times--which collaborated with Zip2 (a company in which it has a 5 percent stake) to develop New York Today--also is getting a late start, relative to competitors such as CitySearch, Microsoft's Sidewalk, and America Online's Digital City.

But that shouldn't hurt it, according to Bill Bass, an analyst with Forrester Research. In fact, it probably helped: the Times was able to learn from its predecessors, he said.

"They're launching a product that's well-refined," Bass added. "It's minimalist. It's more Yahoo-ish than magazinish. They understand the reason people want to go there is to get information--not to have an experience."

In other words, people want fast sites that will deliver--which is what all the localized content sites are trying to offer, with varying degrees of success.

But while it's difficult to tell who is winning the war for local Net readers, it is easy to say the battle has been an expensive one. For players starting from scratch, it's even more costly.

In addition, localized sites these days are competing with portals that aggregate content from other players in a neat and clean way, and with vertical sites that specialize in one particular field, such as real estate or cars.

Local media companies--primarily newspapers--appear to be winning the race: They already have the editorial content as well as the brand recognition. And when it comes to both scores, it's hard to beat the New York Times.

"We've learned from the mistakes of the people that started before us. One of the things we realized very early on is that it made no sense for us to try to copy the models of Sidewalk, Digital City, and CitySearch because we didn't think they've been very successful," said Dan Donaghy, general manager of New York Today

While Sidewalk focuses strictly on arts and entertainment, Digital City and CitySearch supply more general information. If anything, the Times' new site, which is a companion to its existing newspaper site, is more like Digital City and CitySearch.

One might expect a site produced by the same company that publishes the "Gray Lady" to be loaded with long stories from the newspaper. But while the site depends on the newspaper for some content, such as restaurant reviews, it is largely driven by content from advertisers that pay for placement.

For instance, a clothing store could buy a daily ad that advertises a sale. A user who wants to know about sales in a certain area of town would then be delivered the information. Or users could personalize the site so that the types of ads in which they are interested would show up on a daily basis.

Advertisers also can buy hosted Web pages, much as they do on CitySearch. Banner ads, the main staple of any site, are available to advertisers as well.

New York Today also allows people to use the site as a personal calendar, and lets users establish groups that can advertise events to a closed group of people.

For instance, someone planning a reading group can send email notification about meetings to just the people in that group.

The site "really becomes a personal calendar. This metaphor is central to the vision of what we think works in this space. We think this space is about creating a useful product that people will use every day," said Jonathan Glick, product director for New York Today.

To analyst Bass, who has been highly critical of companies entering the localized space, the field is the Times' to take.

"It's a natural for them to do this online," he said. "That's why newspapers have been kicking the butts of AOL and Microsoft from day one."