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In bad economy, TV news turns to average Americans

 Moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC speaks to the U.S. presidential nominees during the presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee October 7, 2008. In a slumping economy, U.S. network news programs are expanding their gaze beyond Wall Street and Washington to mainstream America, heralding projects that give voice to everyday people and their financial woes. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool - Reuters
Moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC speaks to the U.S. presidential nominees during the presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee October 7, 2008. In a slumping economy, U.S. network news programs are expanding their gaze beyond Wall Street and Washington to mainstream America, heralding projects that give voice to everyday people and their financial woes. REUTERS/Jim Bourg/Pool
— image credit: Reuters

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In a slumping economy, U.S. network news programs are expanding their gaze beyond Wall Street and Washington to mainstream America, heralding projects that give voice to everyday people and their financial woes.

The latest project comes from former "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, who said last week he would motor down a cross-country highway, capturing stories along the way.

In one segment from the project, Brokaw will show how the credit crisis strained relations between a car dealership and the local bank. Segments will air on NBC news programs as "Dispatches from the Road," beginning this spring.

"People are out there doing some unique things, responding to what's going on, struggling in some cases," Brokaw told reporters in a telephone conference call. "In other cases, they're finding ways to get around economic obstacles that have been thrown in their path."

On Friday, NBC morning show "Today" postponed its travel series "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer" after viewers overwhelmingly voiced opposition to a lavish foreign trip in favor of something local. Instead, "Today's" four anchors will travel to U.S. destinations for a series airing in May.

Rival network ABC has launched a project called "The Kitchen Table Economy" that it says borrows from the Iraq war practice of "embedding" reporters with U.S. troops.

As part of its effort, ABC has embedded producers in Brockton, Massachusetts, as the city cuts jobs, at a Texas cowboy hat manufacturer struggling to stay afloat and with suburban Washington state parents who both lost their jobs.

ABC's "World News with Charles Gibson" recently aired the first report in the series.

"We're doing it because we feel there's a need to know, as close as we can, what different people in different parts of the country are facing," said Jon Banner, the program's executive producer.

"We spend a lot of time in the sort of New York-Washington axis, which is very important, but not a good idea to spend a lot of time in," he said.

The latest network news projects hearken back to the late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt, who began a long-running series of "On the Road" reports in 1967, traveling in motor homes to meet Americans from all walks of life and depict their stories.

GRASS-ROOTS REPORTING

Martin Kaplan, media expert and director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, said the networks had turned to the voices of average Americans to counter grass-roots competition from Internet news sources.

Kaplan said he welcomed the networks' shift in focus.

"I think what this does is give more viewers a chance to see what people like them are feeling," he said. "It legitimizes their point of view in a way that the official gatekeepers are not doing."

For ABC's "Kitchen Table Economy," the Internet and new technology also were a driving force, Banner said. It allows producers to shoot and package their material single-handedly, instead of having a whole news crew on the story for the recurring, weeklong assignments, he said.

In a CBS project, "At the Kitchen Table," which began on March 7 on "The Early Show," anchor Erica Hill sat down with a New Jersey family of five who have struggled since the father lost his job. CBS plans to make "At the Kitchen Table" a recurring part of its broadcast.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Peter Cooney)

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