YORK, PA. -- To most Pennsylvanians, York means rolling farm country, industrial powerhouses like Caterpillar Inc. and Harley-Davidson Inc. and a citizenry whose conservative politics recall Calvin Coolidge. Beneath that staid exterior, however, lies one of the most colorful newspaper sagas in America -- one that is entering its most curious chapter ever, courtesy of William Dean Singleton, the aspiring media baron. In the past 16 months, Singleton has angered residents, raided his competitor and... . Ah, but that's getting ahead of the story. First, let's meet the contestants. In one corner is the York Daily Record, formerly the Gazette and Daily. As the Gazette, the newspaper was wildly liberal, a perfect mismatch for the community it served. In the 1948 election, the late Josiah W. Gitt, the Gazette's former owner and a legendary figure here, outraged his York County neighbors by endorsing Progressive candidate Henry A. Wallace. In 1964, Gitt was at it again, refusing to sell ad space to Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party's candidate for president. Many residents, too, still recall vividly Gitt's editorial criticism of the York police during that city's bloody racial riots in 1969. ''We used to call it the pinkest sheet in America,'' said Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), who represents the area in Congress. ''Gitt was quite a fellow.'' In the opposing corner is the York Dispatch, cited in 1982 by the Wall Street Journal as among the frumpiest of U.S. newspapers. The Dispatch is the Daily Record's alter ego. Its leanings are conservative and, until recently, its front page looked more like Poor Richard's Almanac than a modern newspaper. For years, the front page contained up to 40 stories, shoehorned into eight narrow columns -- a format consigned to extinction decades ago at most papers. Front-page photos were taboo as well. Legend has it that an editor was fired in 1901 for running an illustration of President William McKinley after his assassination. For the next 87 years, no one repeated the mistake. As for its news judgment, residents still chuckle over the Dispatch's decision to run the story of the Three Mile Island accident, arguably the area's biggest news story ever, on the back page. York is a mere 12 miles from the Middletown nuclear power plant. ''Historically, these have been two very unique newspapers,'' said Mayor William J. Althaus, reflecting the pride that many residents take in the papers' independent, unpredictable ways. With the coming of Singleton, however, the tradition may be nearing its end. Or, at the least, a major fork in the road. On Feb. 22, the two papers applied to the Justice Department for a joint operating agreement. If approved by U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, the former Pennsylvania governor, the pact would merge the two business departments while preserving editorial independence. Such agreements are permitted under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 to maintain two editorial voices in markets where one might otherwise fail. In the filing, the Daily Record reported losses of $3.6 million in the past 10 years, as well as an unpaid loan of $5 million from its current owner, Buckner News Alliance of Seattle. Gitt sold the paper in 1970 to a group of attorneys, who renamed it the Daily Record. Buckner bought the paper in 1978. The Dispatch, the dominant paper, will own 57.5 percent of the partnership. That's where Singleton comes in. A company he controls, Garden State Newspapers Inc. of Woodbridge, N.J., bought the Dispatch in January 1988 from the Young family, which had owned it for the previous 111 years. (The price was an estimated $25 million -- a steal, particularly if the JOA, with its potential for profits, is approved.) On the news side, the participants see no slackening of the long and colorful war. ''If anything, we'll be more contentious than ever,'' said Berl Schwartz, executive editor at the Daily Record. But for York residents, an agreement, if approved, would mean that their two quirky newspapers, after more than a century of feuding, may at last call it quits, if only on the financial side. ''I suppose you could call it the passing of an era,'' said Carl Neu, 72, a former president of the York Chamber of Commerce. Yet even old-timers like Neu concede that Gitt and the Youngs would have been hard-pressed to match the fury of the recent past. Singleton, who is based in Houston, has kept a low profile here, visiting York about once a month or so. (According to some industry sources, Singleton may have been occupied with problems elsewhere. Although his holdings still include the Denver Post and Houston Post, he sold the Dallas Times Herald last year at an estimated loss of $30 million. Early this year, he folded his North Jersey Advance in Dover, N.J.) Under his direction, however, his lieutenants have changed virtually every facet of the 113-year-old Dispatch. The York Sunday News was purchased last September from Lancaster Newspapers Inc. That gave the Dispatch a weapon against the Daily Record's three-year-old Sunday paper. As of Sept. 30, 1988, the Dispatch's Sunday circulation was 41,744; the Daily Record's came in at 39,484. The Sunday paper allowed the Dispatch to offer better deals to advertisers and thus widen its advantage in that arena. An afternoon paper, the Dispatch also introduced a daily morning edition to compete directly with the Daily Record. As of Sept. 30, the Dispatch's daily circulation was 48,017. The Daily Record's was 40,502. On the editorial side, photos were introduced on the front page. So were local stories, which had for decades appeared exclusively on the back page. There were new sections for local news, sports and features. In case the competition missed the point, the Dispatch raided the Daily Record newsroom for several staffers. ''They wanted to hit us where it hurt,'' said one Daily Record staffer, requesting anonymity. ''They simply offered people more money. A friend of mine said she was sorry she didn't ask for a diamond, too." Peter Bhatia, the man Singleton imported from the Dallas Times Herald as the Dispatch's new editor, was unapologetic. ''My mission was to make this a good newspaper and do it fast,'' Bhatia said in an interview last week. ''We had nothing to build on, people with no skills in news-gathering or enterprise." Many local residents were incensed by the ''new Dispatch.'' Bhatia said his phone rang constantly during the first weeks. Most of the feedback, he said, was negative. And some people weren't satisfied with harsh words. According to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the Dispatch's circulation dropped by 600 from March to September of 1988. But the new editors persisted. They felt an improved product would attract younger readers, as well as the new cadre of York Countians who have migrated from the suburbs of Baltimore in search of lower taxes and real estate prices. Although the York County market is relatively small at 320,000, it is growing -- a fact that attracted Singleton in the first place. ''Change is a dirty word in York,'' said Bhatia. ''But we felt the way to reach these new Yorkers was with journalistic excellence.''