The New York Daily News, decimated by a long and violent strike that drove away most of its readers and advertisers, said yesterday it will shut down, perhaps within 60 days, unless the newspaper can be sold or the strike quickly settled.

James Hoge, publisher of the nation's third-largest metropolitan daily newspaper, said the decision was based on the 12-week strike, the recent recession and losses of more than $200 million over the last decade. He said the board of the Tribune Co., which owns the News, endorsed his recommendation at a meeting Tuesday in Chicago.

Asked if the shutdown threat might prompt a settlement with 2,300 striking workers, Hoge said in an interview: "I can only hope so, but I have nothing to point to except the fact that a closure of this paper is in nobody's interest."

Union officials reacted with skepticism. "I think it's just another ploy in their attempt to close the paper eventually and blame the unions," said George McDonald, president of the Allied Trades Council, the umbrella group for the unions.

In recent negotiations, McDonald said, "The company is still not looking to reach a settlement. They summoned Hoge to Chicago and laid down the law that that's the end of the line."

Analysts said it was unlikely that anyone would buy the tabloid, which has lost many of its star reporters and columnists, along with such major advertisers as Macy's, Alexander's and Abraham & Straus. "Unless the unions come down to the table and realize they've got to make concessions ... you've got another paper that dies and people out of jobs," said Kenneth Berents of Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. of Baltimore.

A shutdown of the News, which boasted a pre-strike circulation of 1.1 million, would represent a spectacular miscalculation by the Tribune Co., which gambled on a hard-nosed strategy that it could survive a strike by publishing and distributing the newspaper with replacement workers.

But those hopes faded amid a wave of union-inspired violence that included firebombings, beatings and more than 150 arrests. Frightened newsstand dealers refused to carry the newspaper and street hawkers were unable to fill the gap and circulation plummeted. Although the newspaper filed a series of federal racketeering lawsuits against the unions, none has come to trial. Meanwhile, the financial damage already has been done.

Hoge said "our advertising and circulation base" had been "crippled by the intimidation and violence on the streets."

He said the News would not have considering closing, despite repeated pledges to the contrary, "if we saw some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a settlement, or some progress in rebuilding our base."

Most analysts say the unions also bear a share of the blame by refusing to abandon alleged "featherbedding" abuses, such as press room staffing levels twice as high as management deemed necessary. Such inflated labor costs helped guarantee another red-ink year in 1990 despite gross revenue of $420 million.

In a light drizzle outside the newspaper's 42nd Street building, picketers expressed grim satisfaction that management was willing to suggest that the newspaper might be sold.

"I think they've finally realized that they failed to achieve their objective, which was to break the union," said Harry Ryan, 64, the newspaper's striking travel editor. "Our slogan from the beginning has been, 'Settle or sell.' "

Some picketers described the shutdown threat as a bluff and said the News would not be closed because it provides demand for newsprint at inflated prices from companies owned or controlled by the Tribune Co.

"Most of us believe this is a management bargaining chip... . We'll believe it when we see it," said a silver-haired, bespectacled editor who declined to give his name because of "possible reprisals."

The picketer said a shutdown of the News would be no worse than if the paper survived but succeeded in breaking its unions. "We're not going back to Charles Dickens's days," he said.

Robert J. McCartney contributed to this report from New York.