Newspaper publishers were warned yesterday that the free press is as much of an "endangered species" as whooping cranes or whales.

"The world is on a collision course," with nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America moving in the direction of total press control, former U.S. Information Agency Director Leonard Marks told the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Marks predicted that the United Nations General Assembly will approve next fall a resolution, offered 6 years ago by the Soviet Union, to prohibit dissemination in any country of television programming signals from satelites without the consent of individual governments.

The U.S. was the only nation to oppose consideration of this resolution and if such international law had been established earlier for radio broadcasting, there could be no overseas office of America or British Broadcasting Corp. operations, Marks noted.

In another international forum, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Marks said final action could come at a Paris meeting in October on a proposed declaration of mass media control, under consideration since 1972.

The UNESCO proposal, also supported by the Soviet Union, declares that individual countries, "are responsible for the activities in the international sphere of all mass media under their jurisdiction."

If such a principle is accepted, Marks said, "the trend toward state control will be increased and the international wire services and correspondents for leading newspapers and radio and television networks will be excluded from gathering news" in much of the world.

Action on the UNESCO media resolution was postponed at a conference in Nairobi in 1976 because it was clear that expected approval could have ledto destruction of that organization, including U.S. withdrawal.

There may be efforts to postpone a confrontation again next fall but non-alligned nations met in Cuba last month and decided to seek a vote on the press resolution, which they expect to win, Marks told the annual ANPA convention here.

Whether or not the U.N. and UNESCO resolutions are approved, recent developments indicate a trend that will reduce press freedom around the globe, Marks said. This is because nonaligned nations do not want to permit continued reporting that concentrations on "catastrophies, casualties and corruption" while ignoring the "good news," such as educational program or reduction of child mortality rates.

Tanzania has enacted legislation forbidding the distribution of news except by a national agency and Nigeria is expected to pass a similar law, Marks said. Passage of the proposed UNESCO resolution would serve as a pattern for other countries to follow the lead of Tanzania, he forecast.

Currently a Washington lawyer and secretary-treasurer of a group organized in 1976. The World Press Freedom Committee, Marks called on the newspaper publishers to support grants for scholarships, training and seminars designed to show nonaligned countries the operations of a free press.

Marks was followed on yesterday's program by a victim of press censorship, Donald Woods, the former editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London, South Africa, long a critic of the government there and its policies of racial separation.

Woods was officially banned by the South African government last October, becoming a "non-person" not permitted to write anything, including a diary. With his family, he escaped from South Africa last New York's Eve.

"I have every intention of going back," Woods told the American publishers. "My duty is to speak out for the all the millions who cannot," in his native country. Woods appealed to the American press to continue supporting a free press in South Africa, stating that journalists there are "still doing a good job" given the limitations they face. He said these journalists need continued outside encouragement.

At the publishers' annual business meeting yesterday Gannett Co. executive Allen Neuharth was elected chairman and president for the next two years.

group, which represents nearly 1,300 U.S. and Canadian newspaper, were Len H. Small, president of Small Newspaper and publisher of the Daily Journal in Kankakee, III., as vice chairman; Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and chairman of The Washington Post Company, as treasurer; and Dolph Simons Jr., president and publisher of the Daily Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan., to another term as secretary.

More than 1,700 publishers and newspaper executives attended the three-day ANPA convention here, which concluded yesterday.