If you can't stand joining 'em, beat 'em.

That looks like the route being taken by

Tribune

(TRB)

, the media giant that for years was a minority partner in

America Online's

(AOL)

Digital City

network of online city guides.

Following Tribune's sale of its Digital City stake back to AOL in June, industry participants speculate that Tribune will launch a major new effort in the local city-guide market. That would mean fresh competition for advertising and e-commerce dollars at both AOL and

Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch

(TMCS)

, the biggest publicly traded, pure-play operator of city sites.

Tribune, which already operates numerous local sites linked to its newspaper and broadcasting properties, will string those Web sites together into a nationally branded network of local sites, according to one source familiar with the company. Or, speculates one outsider, the company could team up with

Knight-Ridder

(KRI)

, the operator of the

Real Cities

city-site operation and already a partner of Tribune in other online ventures.

The Name of the Game

"The name of the game in the local online commerce space is to build a national network of localized sites," says Peter Krasilovsky, a vice president at the

Kelsey Group

research firm who follows the local online market. "It's the best way to appeal to the all-important national advertiser.

"If Tribune builds a national network ... they'll be competing directly against Digital City, CitySearch,

Cox Interactive Media

and others," says Krasilovsky. "It's something that the entire local online commerce industry is watching with some apprehension."

Tribune's Tribulations
Stock falling since Times Mirror buy in March

Source: BigCharts

Rashmi Turner, spokeswoman for Tribune Interactive, says Tribune's online local sites are already doing very well, thank you very much. With Tribune's recent acquisition of

Times Mirror

, the conglomerate has sites affiliated with big newspapers in the nation's top three metropolitan areas:

The Los Angeles Times

, Long Island's

Newsday

and the Tribune's flagship

Chicago Tribune

.

Turner says the company might find it valuable to establish a brand to market its sites to a trade audience, but it has no need or plans to establish a national brand for its sites along the lines of those of Digital City or CitySearch. "You walk up to somebody in Chicago, they already know '

chicagotribune.com

,'" she says.

Tribune has no plans to team up with Knight-Ridder on city sites, she adds. "We have plenty of properties on our own and a great national footprint."

Tangled Web

Whatever its plans, Tribune and its related companies have made several moves recently that cement its presence in several areas important to local sites. Tribune and

KnightRidder.com

bought out other newspaper partners in

CareerPath

, an online jobs site, and are combining that with another jobs site,

CareerBuilder

(CBDR)

.

Another company in which Tribune holds a stake,

Internet Tradeline

-- which helps companies such as newspaper Web sites put small businesses on the Web -- recently merged with

KOZ.com

, which helps online newspaper clients, such as KnightRidder.com, allow people to establish their own free Web sites. Tribune's strategic investment arm,

Tribune Ventures

, owns pieces of other companies of interest to local sites, including online services marketplace

eFrenzy

, home mortgage site

iOwn

and restaurant takeout/delivery site

Food.com

.

In recent months, Tribune has also registered numerous domain names that could be used for various city-related sites, according to records collected by

CompanySleuth

. For example, in the wake of establishing the

ChicagoSports.com

site earlier this year, Tribune has registered similar domain names for other cities in which it has newspaper operations.