Newspaper publishers have long said that one immediate way to tell which newspaper in town is financially stronger is to see which is carrying more classified advertising.

On any weekday, the morning Los Angeles Times carries about 24 pages of classified ads. The afternoon Los Angeles Herald Examiner carries two pages.

"That's twice what we had a year ago," says James Bellows, the new editor of the Herald, with characteristic optimism. In his new job nearly two months after leaving the same job at the Washington Star, Bellows has begun to shoot some life into the ailing Hearst newspaper.

Bellows, 55, who once served as an associate editor at the Los Angeles Times, was hired by Hearst Corp. Vice President Frank Bennack as part of a rebuilding project in his newspaper division. Under the direction of Bennack, himself a former publisher of the San Antonio Light and heir apparent to the Hearst Corp. presidency, the newspapers have embarked upon an aggressive reorganization.

But Bellows may have the toughest job of all. The Herald Examiner is what one Hearst executive calls "a financial and editorial disaster."

Once the largest evening paper in the nation with a circulation in excess of 700,000, the Herald Examiner was crippled by a strike of all of its unions more than a decade ago. Deciding to fight rather than give in to the unions, the Hearsts brought in a crew of strikebreakers and kept the paper alive.

Although it effectively broke the unions for a full decade (an out-of-court settlement brought the unions some money only last year), the ordeal reduced the paper to a shell of its former self. Cirulation has dipped to slightly more than 300,000, and no one in Los Angeles considers the publication serious competition for the powerful Los Angeles Times, with circulation in excess of 1 million daily.

The advertising revenues of the Herald also suffered dramatically after the strike. Retail advertising was practically non-existent last year. Year after year, the operations of the Herald ran at a loss as advertising dwindled to practically nothing, according to Hearst Corp, sources. But in the past year, former Cincinnati Enquires publisher Francis Dale has been brought in to bolster the business operations and take over control from George Hearst Jr. And in his first two months at the "Her-Ex," Bellows has made several editorial changes. He fired most of his entertainment staff and added many of the features he used to make the Washington Star as editorial success.

"Page Two" has become a gossip page, with striking similarities in tone to the Star gossip column, "Ear." Dick Adler, former New West magazine editor writes the page, often describing the rival Times as the "U.P." - similar to "Ear's" O.P. reference to The Washington Post. "U.P." stands for "Usepaper," the way the Times describes itself in its promotion campaign.

On page one of the Herald, Bellows has installed a new daily feature called "The Bottom Line," usually an in depth study not unlike the Star's "In Focus." He also has began a daily question-and-answer interview - just like the one at the Star. Bob Dylan was the first interviewee.

Bellows has added a daily TV column, national, world and area briefs columns, a daily profile in the business section, and several New York Times and Washington Star columnists to the editorial and opposite-editorial pages.

And this weeek the Herald's first "Writer-in-Residence" arrives for two or three months. Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote the movies "The last Detail" and "Cinderella Liberty," is to be only the first of many writers-in-residence. Bellows hopes to snare Shaw, Joseph Wambaugh and Cyra McFadden to do the same thing - three columns a week on whatever they feel like writing about.

Bellows hired top United Press International feature writer Rick DuBrow to be entertainment editor, Times magazine business writer Stuart Schoffman to be financial editor, and former Star entertainment editor Mary Ann Dolan to be his assistant managing editor for features and entertainment. Media sources in Los Angeles say that Frank Lalli, recently deposed managing editor of New West, is about to sign on as city editor.

Two New York writers have been imported to become columnists for Herald, in an attempt to upgrade the quality of writing there. Village Voice columnist Denis Hamill, Pete Hamill's younger brother, and freelancer and former Harvard Nieman Fellow Tony Castro will be alternating in a six-day-a-week local-interest column. Tom Plate of New york magazine has been brought in to edit the editorial page, one a bastion of over-the-hill columnists.

"We had a lot more talent when I came to the Star," said Bellows in an interview in his office. "We had a lot more people there - 268 compared to 150 here. But we also had a much more inflexible situation at the Star concerning hiring and firing. There was a much stronger union there.

"But here, we've got to somehow, over a period of time, increase the enthusiasm and quality output as we bring in some people who will help to inspire the staff," he said. "We have a four paragraph mentality, and we want a far more lively, with-it, warm, human-interest newspaper."

But doing anything is going to be difficult with the staff at hand. His approximately 150 people are no match for the Times more than 600 editorial staffers. And the Her-Ex pays about half the salaries being offered at the Times. Consequently, most staffers on the Herald are either too young and inexperienced, or over the hill.

"Everybody in the building is running two quarts low," says one of Bellow's top assistants.

Across town, the Los Angeles Times is hardly shaking in its sandals. One of the richest and most powerful publishing empires in the country, Times-Mirror last month reported record earnings, including a huge jump in the profits of the Los Angeles Times itself. Right now, the Times has a reported 93 percent of the Los Angeles newspaper advertising market. The Times has almost more people in its Marketing Research division (100) than the Herald has reporters.