Reporters and editors at United Press International are facing another deadline today. It could be their last.

Union employees of the Washington-based wire service, once the largest private news-gathering organization in the world, have until this morning to vote on a management proposal to cut their wages by 35 percent.

UPI's parent company, Infotechnology Inc. of New York, hasn't given the 320 workers much of a choice: Employees must accept the pay cut for the next three months or Infotech says it will pull the plug on on the 83-year-old institution by as early as tomorrow.

Although never a moneymaker -- UPI has shown an operating profit only twice in the past 30 years -- the service has begun to melt down under Infotech, its fourth owner in eight years. Layoffs and attrition have halved its work force to 500 people in the past three years.

UPI is currently losing $2.5 million a month, according to management, and has $10 million in bills due immediately. Among its creditors is the White House, which is owed $70,000 for reporters' trips with President Bush on Air Force One.

UPI's management has already taken its own 35 percent cut, and wants workers to shave their salaries to a top scale of $448.50 a week to buy time while it searches for a savior. Even if UPI survives (newsroom sentiment is said to be running in favor of the cut), the wire service seems destined for permanent change.

"To run UPI as a separate, stand-alone entity is not a going prospect," conceded Executive Editor Al Rossiter Jr.

Rossiter and other top editors say UPI may end up as an adjunct to another news organization, in an undefined but smaller form. But others aren't sure UPI has a future at all: "They're in a very tough position," said newspaper industry analyst John Morton. "... They could have become a more specialized {news service} but it's hard to imagine what that could have been."

UPI's uncertain fate is partially a result of increasingly hard times in the media business. A slowdown in advertising has led to layoffs and cutbacks at newspapers and television stations and a shakeout in the magazine industry. Cost-consciousness has compelled some of UPI's clients, many of whom also subscribe to the rival Associated Press, to cancel or reduce their purchases of its news reports in the past year.

"We just didn't feel it was worthwhile for the price," said Ed Storin, associate managing editor of the Miami Herald, which canceled its UPI contract earlier this year.

"If things had gone better than have the past four or five months {in terms of advertising}, we would have listened to a proposal," Storin said "We've had a lot of cutbacks here. To be very honest, {dropping UPI} was one of the easier cuts."

Such commentary is painful for the once-proud service, which scored such journalistic coups as the first Western interview with Adolf Hitler and the first news of President Kennedy's assassination. Its alumni include Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid.

But larger forces, both within UPI and outside it, have led to the news service's long, slow decline. "You can't point to any one single thing in UPI's history and say that's where we went wrong," said Ed Miller, UPI's assistant managing editor for national news. "It's an accumulation of a lot of things."

For years, UPI's losses were absorbed by its wealthy founder, E.W. Scripps Co., which designed the original United Press to serve afternoon newspapers passed over by the Associated Press. As it happened, afternoon newspapers began to die after World War II as TV newscasts and suburban commuting patterns changed the market.

Tired of losing money, Scripps finally sold UPI in 1982 to two little-known entrepreneurs, Douglas Ruhe and William Geissler, the first of a series of owners that could not, or were unwilling to, subsidize its losses.

Ruhe and Geissler, whose management of UPI was savaged in a recent book by two former UPI staffers, gave way to Mexican press baron Mario Vazquez-Rana in 1985, who sold out to Infotechnology in early 1989.

Several employees criticize Infotech's handling of UPI in particular, saying its attempts to launch a series of joint ventures involving UPI and Financial News Network, the cable TV channel part-owned by Infotech, drained desperately needed resources away from the wire service.

Pieter VanBennekom, UPI's executive vice president and its de facto chief executive, denies this. "Instability has never been far from UPI," he said.

There is little dispute, however, that UPI's chronic cash shortages have been exacerbated by changes in the gathering and delivery of news. Compact satellite technology has enabled TV broadcasters to send their own news teams to distant locales instead of relying on wire service reports.

Further, UPI faces increased competition from specialized wire services, such as Dow Jones's and Reuter's financial reports and those run by The Washington Post/Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

UPI's only competitor as a general service, the Associated Press, is less pressed to make a profit because it is a cooperative owned by its subscribers.

"There's so much information available now that it's difficult for a {general wire service} to prosper, especially one that's number two," observed Jon Udell, a University of Wisconsin business professor who has studied the economics of the newspaper business.

Nevertheless, despite the dwindling resources at UPI, a grim, combat-weary morale is being maintained.

"UPI staffers have a tendency to keep going in the face of all sorts of odds and distractions," said Steve Geimann, assistant managing editor for state and regional news.