When the penny press was "the media" and journalism's favorite color was yellow, the big-city Hearst papers were known for portraying "the song of the spheres as a screech," in the words of one turn-of-the-century critic.

Now, both editorially and financially, things have quieted down as, one by one, Hearst's big-city newspapers have been sold off or shut down.

While the death of the Baltimore News American highlights how tough it is for a second-place newspaper in a city to survive, it simultaneously underscores how far Hearst has come from its newspaper origins as the corporate creation of William Randolph Hearst nearly 100 years ago.

The privately held Hearst Corp. is a diversified media company with revenue estimated in excess of $1.5 billion and holdings in magazines, radio and television broadcasting, cable television and book publishing. It reportedly is quite profitable.

Last year, the company purchased Boston television station WCVB for $450 million from Metromedia, to give it six VHF stations -- making it the second-largest non-network owner of network-affiliated stations after Westinghouse Broadcasting. The company also has stations in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Dayton and Baltimore. Hearst also owns seven radio stations.

Since 1979, when Hearst Chief Executive Officer Frank A. Bennack Jr. embarked on an acquisitions campaign, the company has spent more than $1 billion acquiring or developing over a dozen properties.

Hearst's stable of 12 magazines -- ranging from Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan to Science Digest -- makes the company "the largest publisher of monthly magazines in the U.S.," said a Hearst executive who asked not to be named. Hearst's magazine group provides the bulk of the company's revenue.

"It's kind of a mixed bag," said Ken Noble, a publishing analyst with Paine, Webber. "They're comparable to Time Inc. They've built a successful magazine business, one of the better ones, and they're strong in broadcasting.

"Their only problem has been in the big-city newspaper area -- the newspapers they've had are second newspapers in big cities, and turning those around are difficult."

Reflecting that, Hearst sold its Boston Herald American to Rupert Murdoch almost two years ago, and the company's Los Angeles Herald Examiner still languishes a money-losing No. 2 behind the behemoth Los Angeles Times.

However, the Hearst executive said, "We intend to add newspapers," pointing out that "we are normally invited to participate for many of the biggest newspapers that have come up for sale -- including Des Moines [Register] and Louisville [Courier Journal]." He added that Hearst snapped up several Texas newspapers just two years ago.

"Our Albany [N.Y.] papers and San Francisco paper are also doing extremely well," he said.

The San Francisco Examiner -- now run by William Randolph Hearst III -- and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are run under special joint operating agreements with other newspapers, which allow them to operate with dramatically reduced costs. As a private company, Hearst is not obligated to reveal revenue or profits for its properties -- and consistently declines to do so.

"Hearst has the luxury of not being a public company, so it can afford to stick with a property for years. Hearst has got Time Inc. beat for patience," a former Hearst magazine executive said.

Consequently, Hearst will stay with a money-losing newspaper or magazine for years in hopes of turning it around, he said.

Indeed, the Hearst executive flatly denied rumors that the Los Angeles paper was for sale, asserting that the Herald Examiner finally was showing signs of growth.

"Los Angeles is a bigger market than Baltimore," he said.

Excluding Baltimore, Hearst owns 14 newspapers. The company also owns Avon Books, Hearst Books and the William Morrow publishing House. Hearst also has ventured into the cable television field with joint ownership of the Lifetime and Arts & Entertainment networks.

The company also owns King Features, one of the largest newspaper syndicates, selling such popular comic strips as Beatle Bailey.

But Hearst's patience apparently wore too thin with the News American.