Gannett Co., the Rosslyn-based media company that owns USA Today and WUSA-TV, Channel 9, is considering adding the Washington area's largest chain of weekly newspapers to its corporate roster.

Gannett, the nation's biggest newspaper chain, is negotiating to buy DCI Inc. of Alexandria, which publishes 21 weeklies, sources close to both parties said. The papers are distributed free to more than 500,000 households in much of the Northern Virginia suburbs and parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

DCI's flagship is the Alexandria Gazette Packet. It also operates the Connection chain of six papers in Fairfax County and a number of other weeklies.

Although DCI has held sale talks with several parties since early this year, Gannett appears to be serious in its discussions with DCI's largest shareholders, Alexandria real estate developers Peter Labovitz and John Hanes.

The Federal Trade Commission last week cleared Gannett of any antitrust concerns after Gannett indicated it was interested in making an acquisition it did not publicly disclose. The proposed acquisition is DCI, according to sources.

Gannett needed the government's blessing to acquire the weeklies because it already owns Channel 9 and could have faced a legal challenge under antitrust law if the government had not signaled its approval of the deal in advance. However, the filing is not considered a definitive sign that a sale is imminent.

A Gannett spokeswoman had no comment on the company's plans or on its FTC filing.

"We don't have a contract with anyone," Labovitz said yesterday. "We're having {sale} discussions with a number of people, as we have for many months."

The Washington Post Co. and the Providence Journal Co., the publisher of Rhode Island's largest daily newspaper, have held separate discussions with DCI this year, but it was unclear yesterday whether either company is interested. A Post Co. executive declined comment; Providence Journal representatives could not be reached.

As the publisher of the dominant daily newspaper in the Washington market, The Post Co. could be challenged on antitrust grounds if it attempted to acquire the region's biggest weekly chain, several sources said yesterday.

Labovitz, speaking generally, said a large newspaper company could realize a number of cost savings by buying DCI, such as obtaining newsprint cheaper through its bulk purchases. He also said a big company with experience in the newspaper business has more money than DCI's current owners to market and manage the papers.

Labovitz would not disclose DCI's financial condition but said that, like other newspaper companies, it had been affected by the industry-wide downturn in advertising.

One newspaper executive suggested that Gannett could pair the DCI papers with Channel 9 to sell joint print-broadcast advertising packages to large retailers such as Giant Food Inc. and Woodward & Lothrop.

With their regional circulation, particularly among affluent households in Fairfax and Montgomery counties and the city of Alexandria, the newspapers also could compete with The Washington Post for pre-printed ad circulars from these retailers, the executive said.