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'STAR' GOES SPANISH

In the late 1990s, a newspaper consultant (definition: a failed journalist now paid handsomely to lead other journalists to failure) gave the Arizona Daily Star a list of 10 improvements or additions it needed to make within a decade if it hoped to survive. The last recommendation, intended to rest on the back-burner for a few years, made excellent sense: Establish a Spanish-language service in an underserved market that's nearly 30 percent Hispanic.

Last week, the Star did just that, well ahead of the initial schedule. La Estrella de Tucsón is a weekly section in Spanish that seems geared mainly to recent arrivals from Mexico. With an initial circulation of 36,000, it's distributed in free racks and inside the Star in the city's Hispanic areas. This means certain, final death for Moisés Martínez-Betancourt's struggling independent weekly, El Semanario, and it gives the Star a jump on the Texas-based Meximerican Media, which may eventually bring its Spanish-language daily franchise, Rumbo, to Tucson.

"Our goal is basically to deliver the news that this Hispanic community needs to integrate themselves better into American society," says Estrella editor José Merino, whose background includes work at several Mexican news outlets, including El Imparcial in Hermosillo. "If they don't have a bank account, or don't know how to get a car loan, we'll provide that kind of information. At the same time, we're giving them news about what's going on in their local community, from their perspective."

Despite the delicate situation with present and potential competition, Merino says this is no rush job. "We've been working on this for four years; it didn't come out of the blue," he says.

Merino says the balance of wire service copy, original local Spanish material and pieces translated from what's already been in the Star in English will vary from week to week.

"We have our own agenda of stories we'll write especially for La Estrella," he says, "and the translated stories will be modified slightly to give the Hispanic perspective to the story."

All well and good, but every newspaper initiative these days is expected to serve the stockholders as well as the public. Will there be adequate advertising support for news in Spanish? "It is there already," Merino declares. "Big national companies have big budgets for the Hispanic market. You can see that on Telemundo and Univison and all the (Hispanic) radio stations. The print media hasn't done so much with that yet; we're trying to be the first one in Tucson that caters to that local market.

"We are doing pretty good already. The expectations are very high, and we're hoping that we'll be leading the market within the first six moths."

But what if Rumbo eventually rumbles into town?

"At the end of the day, the big winner is the reader," he says. "If you have competition, you will be pushing to make a better product."

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