If you were in Morton Dean's position, you might take on a certain air, develop a bit of an attitude.

You might practice looking all-wise. Downright prescient, perhaps. You would work hard at suppressing a grin or a smirk. You might expect people to come up to you, especially old friends from your major network days, and ask for advice. They might want to touch your coat sleeve and hope some of the magic rubbed off. At the very least, they would compliment you on your timing, maybe put the arm on you for a job lead.

But if you were Morton Dean himself, you would do none of these things, whatever the temptation. You would simply take in stride the fact that you're working while a number of your old pals are not and that you've even managed to win the title news anchor with another national news organization, granted a much smaller one than CBS. But hey, an anchor's an anchor.

It's been 2 1/2 years since Dean left CBS to become the anchor of the Independent Network News' "USA Tonight" newscast. CBS handed him his 20-year watch as he walked out the door. "I joked with {a CBS executive}. I said, Do I still get the watch?"

In the months since, a new economic climate has frosted the television industry. Amid the chill, a number of network newsmen and women have been pushed out the door Dean walked through on his own. Many of them were veterans like Dean, and few of them have found as comfortable an alternative as his.

"I had drinks last night with some other former CBS people," he said during a recent stop in Washington. "One is with NBC; the other two are looking around."

Dean's departure from CBS came well before others got the ax. "For a year after I left, people were asking me why I left," he said. "No one does that now."

The same people who thought he was maybe crazy when he left CBS must wonder now, what did he know then that we didn't and when did he know it?

Not only did he seem to foresee that the news force would shrink at the major networks, but he also seemed to know that scaled-down news operations, with high-tech closer to its heart than six-figure newspeople, would begin to steal the thunder from the big three when it came to delivering the news.

Dean claims no great insights into industry trends. He paints himself as a working newsman who went looking for a new turn to this career. The upshot is that he has become point man for "USA Tonight," a half-hour news program that enables independent stations to become players in the national-news game right along with the networks and the various cable-television news services.

And last week that game came to prime-time in Washington, shifting from a late-night slot to 10 p.m. on Channel 20.

That move puts "USA" in head-to-head competition with Channel 5's local news hour at 10.

Dean, with his low-key manner, isn't looking for an alley fight with the WTTG folks, just a little elbow room at 10, please.

"It's going to be a major accomplishment if we immediately show that we can break into a tradition" like Channel 5's news at 10, said Dean. "But I like to think there's room for a show like ours." To get viewers here, he said, "you have to be in Washington at 6 o'clock or in prime time."

Dean, who is six months from the end of his three-year contract with INN, also sees the show's debut here as a significant move from a corporate standpoint. "I think it's a signpost for our company," he said. "It's a time to grow and to cover more news. There's a market for it." He also hopes it will serve as incentive for INN to expand its operation. "With a few more people ... " he said, considering the possibilities. "This is very important."

While INN in part symbolizes the fragmentation of the television news business away from the major networks, it has not had a trouble-free existence. "We shrunk when everybody else shrunk," said Dean.

And he acknowledges the shortcomings of their organization while also pointing out strengths. "We don't have the bench strength and the bureaus the major networks have," he said. "We try to devote more time to each story than the networks do. I think that's a major difference. I think that's important when you're seen later in the evening, by and large. Everybody's already heard the headlines.

"We're moving toward more interviews -- I like to do them, and it gives more dimension to the story."

Whatever the shortcomings in resources, Dean's solid presence gives validity and authority to the "USA Tonight" news presentation. Washington news junkies who go to bed early will have an interesting choice to make at 10.

Dean hopes the show's prime-time airing in the Washington market will prompt its producers to originate more material from the Nation's Capital. "I've always wanted to spend more on remotes from Washington," he said. "I hope this puts more pressure on INN to do more now from Washington." Not that the show should become Washington-centered, "but this should be a convenient excuse to do more from here."

INN was begun in 1980 by WPIX, Inc., which also operates WPIX in New York. WPIX, Inc., is a division of Tribune Broadcasting, part of the Tribune Company.

Until this year, the INN newscast was known as "INN: The Independent News." And before Dean signed on, the telecast was co-anchored by the troika of Pat Harper, Steve Bosh and Bill Jorgensen.

When INN went on the air in June, 1980, the same week CNN news made its debut, it was seen on 26 independent stations. Fortunately for INN, independent television has been a growth industry. In 1980, by INN's count, there were 65 independent stations in the country. Now "USA Tonight" is seen on 113.

Each of the member stations can serve as a regional bureau, and INN, which employs 150 people, has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Miami.

The Tribune Company, Dean said, "seems committed to taking the stations it owns into the network. There's an awareness in Chicago that INN is important and can be more important ... Does that sound like company {propaganda}?" he asked, pausing to listen to himself. "It's a struggle to grow in this business," he said, "and when {like me} you tend to believe in grit and determination ... With the networks shrinking it's a time to grow and capitalize on the availability of good people."

Dean knows a bit about grit. He grew up in Fall River, Mass., son of a life insurance salesman. "He would go door-to-door and pick up the debit," he recalled. "Later he started a wholesale toy operation. It was a one-man operation. He sold during the day ... When that got too heavy, he sold costume jewelry."

His father died three years ago, his mother earlier this year.

"My mother and I helped with packaging and shipping," he said. "They were real work-ethic type of people -- always one step ahead of the bill collector."

Dean, who received his B.A. in English from Emerson College in Boston, now lives in Richfield, Conn., with his second wife, Lonnie Reed. He's 51 and has three children.

His career has included stops with the Herald Tribune Radio Network in New York State, radio station WBZ in Boston and WCBS-TV in New York. The core of his career has been with CBS, where his assignments included South Vietnam, El Salvador, the Grenada invasion, the war in the Falklands and the Iran hostage crisis.

Dean was an Emmy-winning contributor to "CBS Sunday Morning" and was anchoring the CBS Sunday news when he decided to move on.

"I had begun to think about new and different things to do. I had talked to some non-news producers about projects. I don't think it was a midlife crisis," he said, "though my wife says I've had a lifelong midlife crisis.

"It wasn't hard to leave -- I had left emotionally before actually leaving. CBS had an early morning assignment in mind that I wasn't enthusiastic about."

That would have been the 6 to 7 a.m. weekday news program. "I was offered a four-year contract and more money -- I just didn't want to be at work at 3 a.m."

The network alumni club is full of newsmen, of course, who'd die to be getting up at 3 a.m. Dean feels for them.

"There are any number of guys in my neighborhood with 20, 30 years in a company, with good severance, but looking for work. If I were running for office, I would use {the trend} in a political campaign. I think it's interesting at a time when we're doing battle with the Japanese economically, some of our best people are looking for work."

For refugees of the TV news business, there's an extra dimension. "It's very difficult," said Dean. "You work hard -- you get shot at -- you think you're improving with age. But a lot of TV news people are finding that longevity in the business is a risky business ...

"It's a troubling time, but it's also a time when interesting opportunities are coming up."

CONTINUED ON PAGE 11 CONTINUED FROM PAGE 9 Morton Dean: "TV news people are finding that longevity in the business is a risky business."