Gannett Co., which has reported higher profits for each of the past 22 years, may be facing its first year of lower earnings since it became a public company, according to the chief executive of the Arlington-based media company.

The earnings outlook is also bleak for Gannett's flagship newspaper, USA Today. The paper is expected to lose money for the eighth straight year, said John J. Curley, Gannett's top officer, despite earlier projections that it would turn a profit in 1990.

The current year "is turning out to be a record year -- for Maalox and Excedrin sales," Curley told security analysts in Washington last week. "We're still hoping for higher earnings {for the company}, but without some improvement in our revenue stream it will be a stretch."

Like other companies in the newspaper business, Gannett is suffering from one of the worst industry downturns in recent memory. In the past three months, for example, analyst John Reidy of Smith Barney, Harris, Upham & Co. has lowered his earnings expectations twice for almost all of the major newspaper companies, including Knight-Ridder Co., Tribune Co., New York Times Co., Times Mirror Co. and The Washington Post Co.

Until this year, however, Gannett -- the nation's largest newspaper publisher -- has been alone in its ability to post record earnings quarter after quarter. The company's remarkable streak of 89 consecutive quarters of higher profit came to an end when Gannett reported that earnings slipped 6 percent during the three-month period ending in June.

Curley's comments, echoed by Gannett's chief financial officer, Douglas McCorkindale, indicate that the company expects the industry-wide recession to affect it into next year at least. Curley said the major problem at Gannett's 83 daily newspapers was a decline in retail advertising, which he said accounts for about half of Gannett's newspaper revenue.

The company's overall performance seems to be mirrored by USA Today. The newspaper's advertising pages were down 8.5 percent through August compared with last year, though its revenue was up 2 percent due to rate increases.

Although the paper's annual loss will decline this year, "it will be difficult for us to get all the way to profitability," said Tom Curley, USA Today's president and John Curley's younger brother. Tom Curley said Gannett's management had expressed no impatience with the paper, despite a pretax investment of $800 million, or about $400 million after taxes. The paper's circulation has continued to increase, he said, reaching 1.8 million copies Mondays through Thursdays and 2.2 million on Fridays.

On another front, John Curley said Gannett is interested in developing television talk shows or other information programming that could be syndicated to stations around the country, although he didn't elaborate. Gannett was in the TV production and syndication business for three years with "USA Today on TV," a nightly "infotainment" program it produced with former NBC chairman Grant Tinker. The money-losing venture with Tinker was dissolved in March.

Curley also said Gannett is interested in buying media properties now that the company's long-term debt has been reduced and media company prices are falling, but many recent acquisition candidates remain pricey.