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FOR SPANISH SPEAKERS, NEWS THEY CAN USE

It's 15 minutes before taping begins for a new installment of Univision's Spanish-language local news broadcast, Noticias 61, and the staff of affiliate WVEA-Ch. 61 is already in overdrive.

Co-anchor Pilar Ortiz, typing up the script for an aviation story, has hit a button that accidentally removed the entire text from her computer screen, possibly ruining hours of work in an instant. Moments later, a relieved Ortiz recovers the file.

Meanwhile, news director and anchor Javier Benavides is answering questions from a visiting reporter while flipping through a dictionary to find the Spanish word for "arcing." Across the hall, video technicians are editing footage of a graphic showing the inside of a jumbo jet.

If this were one of the area's mainstream, English-language TV news departments, the staff might not be so harried. There, the companies have producers to help craft words for stories, makeup people to primp the anchors and researchers to track down archival footage or ferret out a fact.

But at Noticias 61, lean and mean is the rule.

Which means, co-anchor Javier Benavides does triple duty as news director and writer, dabbing on his own makeup just before videotaping the introductions to each day's stories.

Ortiz smoothes out her own makeup as well, donning a smart-looking jacket that transforms her casual-looking office attire into TV-ready anchorwear.

That's because Noticias 61, Tampa's first Spanish-language local TV newscast, operates on what would be a thin shoestring at wealthier, mainstream organizations.

WVEA does a lot with few resources. It has one newsvan, one reporter and one photographer to cover events in the field. With a staff of about 10, they also rely on video footage supplied by WFTS-Ch. 28 to supplement what they tape on their own.

Anchor lead-ins to each story are taped earlier in the day and assembled with news footage and graphics into a complete newscast. The anchors appear on camera live for only a few minutes at the end of each 6 p.m. newscast.

In total, the station spent about $250,000 to build their entire news operation from the ground up, not much more than the price of one digital floor camera used at any of the mainstream TV news studios.

"I have people who wear many different hats," says Lilly Gonzalez, general manager of WVEA, who says she spent three years convincing the station's owners to establish the half-hour news broadcast, even at rock-bottom funding levels. "While one station may have five people doing different jobs, I have two people doing five jobs."

Cable systems in Pinellas County don't carry the low-power WVEA or its competitor, Telemundo affiliate WRMD-Ch. 57 _ perhaps because the county's Hispanic population is just over 3 percent, compared to nearly 17 percent in Hillsborough, according to 1997 statistics from CACI Marketing Systems.

Viewers outside Hillsborough County can see Univision network programing on cable systems such as Time Warner and GTE Americast, but must use an antenna to receive WVEA or WRMD (mirroring national trends, Univision's viewership is more than four times larger than Telemundo's audience).

Still, Gonzalez values the half-hour broadcast, which debuted last month, as a marked improvement over the brief news updates they telecast for years.

"The company needs to be committed to the community . . . and with one-minute news breaks, we couldn't cover the issues people wanted to know about," she says. "(There was) frustration at not being able to provide a complete story."

Benavides, a veteran of television and radio networks such as Telecaribe and Radio Unica, notes a value to Spanish-language news beyond just reaching viewers who don't speak English.

"We're trying to help the community with information they can use," he says, gesturing behind his head to a bulletin board filled with clippings from the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune.

"When (mainstream news outlets) talk about a change in immigration laws, (they) don't say how to apply for the new program or what it means for people affected," he adds. "We'll do a story on how to buy a house if the (sellers) don't speak Spanish . . . and how to avoid fraud."

The telecasts also combat a regular complaint of Latino viewers, reflected in a recent poll of more than 1,000 Hispanic men and women by the Tomas Rivera Policy institute in Texas, indicating that 70 percent believed stories on Latinos were mostly about crime and immigration.

Aly Colon, who teaches diversity and ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, says Noticias 61 seems to present a greater range of races in its video footage than mainstream TV news sources _ even while airing stock images of smokers with a story on the tobacco settlement.

"They're focusing on news of interest to their community . . . (with) faces their audience can relate to," adds Colon, who viewed a tape of past WVEA newscasts. "Mainstream TV news thinks they do the same, but they wind up catering to people who look just like their anchors."

Of course, because they speak to a diversity of viewers _ including Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Colombians _ Spanish-language news outlets such as Noticias 61 must also choose their words carefully, using a plain "broadcast Spanish" free from dialects and specific accents.

For example, one interpretation of the word coger is "to take." But it also has a different meaning in some Spanish-speaking countries: sexual intercourse. Similarly, a bolsa is a sack or bag in many areas, but for others, it refers to a man's testicles.

Use of the wrong word could offend many viewers, Benavides says, particularly regarding Fidel Castro, one of the touchiest subjects for the area's Cuban population.

Some Cubans in the Tampa Bay area who ardently oppose Castro's rule and his communist government also resist attaching the title of "President" to his name, reacting negatively when news accounts mention the title.

"He (Castro) is president of the country . . . we have to say he's the first person of the state," Benavides counters. "But even that upsets people."

Gloria Montoya will never forget how some people can react to news about the Cuban leader. While working at Spanish-language Radio Mundo, she made a reference to the country and Castro; not long after, she received a telephone call.

"I know when you get off work, I will wait in the parking lot until you come down, and then I will kill you," the caller said.

Though the listener never followed through, it was a lesson Montoya never forgot in two years spent assembling minute-long, Spanish-language local news updates for Tampa's Telemundo affiliate, WRMD.

"Words are so full of power, you have to be very sensitive to their meanings," says Montoya, who crafted the updates at WTVT-Ch. 13, recording Spanish narration over footage provided by the Fox affiliate. "I always try to be careful, because you never know who is watching."

She left the part-time job Dec. 4 and is now completing a degree at the University of South Florida. Though the updates will continue on weekdays with a different anchor, an executive at the company that owns WRMD says they won't present a half-hour local newscast anytime soon.

"It's the cost," says Ronald Gordon, president of WRMD and owner of ZGS Broadcasting, who says he still hopes the station will one day offer its own newscast. "For a TV station, the two most expensive things are programing and production . . . (local) news is both."

Gonzalez says she heard the same arguments in trying to organize WVEA's local newscasts. And since Hispanics only comprise about 8 percent of the Tampa Bay area's TV viewers, their numbers may seem too small to turn a profit with Spanish-language programing.

But the general manager points to research commissioned by WVEA showing the Tampa Bay area's 89,000 Hispanic households have a median income of more than $39,000, generating $1.6-billion in retail sales.

The Latin Communications Group, which is completing purchase of WVEA through its Entravision subsidiary, is also negotiating to buy WBSV-Ch. 62 in Sarasota, and considering plans to move the high-power TV station north to Tampa, according to Gonzalez.

"We know the Hispanic market is growing . . . (and) more companies, to remain competitive, will have to target this Spanish-language market (through advertising)," she adds. "Once the companies figure this out, we'll be ready for them."

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