Gannett Co., a diversified communications firm that owns the nation's largest chain of daily newspapers, announced plans here yesterday to publish prototype editions next year of a national, general interest daily paper to be called USA Today.

If the reactions of advertisers and readers to the test publications are positive, Gannett probably will begin daily publication and distribution throughout the country in 1982, company chairman Allen Neuharth told publishers of the company's 81 dailies at a luncheon meeting.

Neuharth also announced establishment of a Washington-based nationwide satellite communication network, which will build a transmitting earth station in Springfield next year under an arrangement with Army Times Publishing Co., which has a plant there for its military-oriented newspapers and the five Journal suburban newspapers in this area.

Gannett's satellite subsidiary will permit the Rochester, N.Y., company to explore new methods of information distribution in an era when technology advances have raised the potential of competition to existing media properties. a

"From the earth station we will be able to transmit news, information, advertising and entertainment to an infinite number of satellite receiving stations around the country," Neuharth said.

Although he was vague on many details -- partly because decisions have not been made on many technical matters and partly to protect Gannett's own ideas about information content from competitors -- Neuharth emphasized that Gannett surveys of 40,000 readers or viewers in 50 U.S. markets have indicated possible success for a national newspaper.

"We are encouraged by a year of research on various ways to combine our considerable news, advertising, production and distribution facilities in 35 states with available new technology and other resources to offer new information products to large numbers of consumers," he told about 250 publishers and other Gannett officials, here for annual meetings.

Newspaper industry analyst John Morton, of the Wall Street firm of John Muir & Co., said yesterday's announcement represented "Gannett's effort to get a handle on what the new technlogy will be . . . they will be in a position to find out what the market is and to take advantage of it if developments in the next 10 years raise a threat to the newspaper franchise. Gannett will be able to participate and not watch the nibbling away of their business."

Neuharth emphasized that his firm's research during the last year has shown not only that there is no threat to current information-gathering businesses but also that many -- not all -- new information systems will carve out part of the future market. "The American people are more hungry than ever before for information," he asserted.

Currently, the only daily newspaper with widespread national circulation on the day of publication is The Wall Street Journal, a business publication of Dow Jones & Co. that has a circulation of 1,838,891. The Journal is printed at 13 plants around the country, with information for some of the editions transmitted by satellite communication.

Gannett apparently is looking toward a similar approach. Noting that his company's presses are now idle for much of every day, Neuharth said that an agreement has been reached with American Satellite Co. for leasing of satellite air time. American is a subsidiary of Fairchild Industries, a Montgomery County firm.

The New York Times also has started publication of a separate and smaller Midwest edition, in Chicago, and is leasing time from American Satellite for transmission of its news and advertising copy. Since inauguration of the Midwest edition on Aug. 18, circulation in that region has increased about 25 percent to 40,000 daily and 115,000 on Sundays, a spokesman for The Times said yesterday.

Whereas The New York Times previously arrived in Detroit at 2 p.m. on Mondays, for example, the newspaper now offers home delivery by 6:30 a.m. in that market, as well as in Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. By March, The Times plans early morning home delivery in St. Louis and Milwaukee, as part of a "deliberate, slow effort to build up markets city-by-city," said the spokesman. The use of other satellite printing plants for additional regional editions of The Times will be considered once the Midwest printing capacity is reached.

Gannett's new Washington subsidiary, Gannett Satellite Information Network, also will explore uses of the communications network including possible news and advertising supplements for Gannett's dailies, with a combined circulation of 3.6 million; special programming for the firm's 7 television and 13 radio stations; national advertising transmissions for 38,000 billboards of another Gannett subsidiary; and local, regional or national programming for cable television operations.

In addition to its dailies, broadcast properties and outdoor advertising business, Gannett owns 20 weekly or semi-weekly papers, a film production firm and the research firm of Louis Harris & Associates. Overall sales this year will be about $1.2 billion and profits in the final quarter of the year will be higher than in 1979 for the 53rd consecutive quarterly gain, Neuharth said yesterday.

One official of another communications firm said yesterday: "Look, they're a big and exciting company . . . what they do will be watched with enormous interest."

Neuharth said the proposed national daily would not appeal to specialized audiences, in contrast with earlier trade reports that the paper would concentrate on business and sports news. Neuharth said Gannett had no plans to open overseas reporting bureaus.

The Gannett chief also said the new paper would be "different" in such a way that it would not compete with existing metropolitan dailies or the local and regional dailies that dominate the Gannett chain, an explanation that Morton said was difficult to believe.

To head the new Washington subsidiary, Gannett has appointed Maurice Hickey, 46, as president. Previously he was a Gannett publisher in Florida, New York, Illinois and Michigan.

Other appointments announced yesterday were: Ron Martin, 43, former editor of the Baltimore News-American, a Hearst Corp. publication, as executive vice president forr news; Frank Vega, 32, a former Knight-Ridder distribution official, as vice president for distribution; Thomas Baskind, 33, vice president for CBS Sports, as vice president for marketing communications; Lawrence Sackett, 32, former operations director for the International Herald Tribune, as vice president for operations; and Linda Peek, 29, director of communications for the Carter-Mondale re-election drive, as vice president for public affairs.