IT'S NOT CLEAR whether Richard Meeker intended the title of this book to be ironic or not. In the early days of American journalism, a "newspaperman" was an owner-editor like Horace Greeley, who made his paper his personal trumpet and scourge of rascals. And early in the 20th century, it was a label worn as proudly as a combat badge by the reporters who went out and got the stories-- in the campaign headquarters and press boxes, in riot-torn streets and under fire.

It wasn't a name you would apply easily to a business manager, or a publisher. Especially not to a publisher who owned a chain of newspapers, instead of being identified heart, soul and pocketbook with one. And most especially not to S.I. Newhouse, who wound up owning a communications empire including more than 30 newspapers spread through the country (plus magazines, publishing houses, and cable TV stations). Each and every one of them meant only one thing to him--a vehicle for running advertisements and making money.

This latter judgment is not that of a reviewer; it's abundantly and forcefully demonstrated by Meeker himself in this strong and revealing book. Surely the title must have been wryly intended.

There are, inevitably, overtones of the saga of Hearst here. Like the reporter in Citizen Kane, Meeker quarried his story out of interviews with hundreds of people whose lives were woven by contact with Newhouse. There was, and will be, no official cooperation from S.I. Newhouse Jr. ("Si") and Donald Newhouse, the sons who inherited the empire on the founder's death in 1979. And Newhouse himself despised publicity. But unlike the gaudy, Nero-like Hearst, he was almost wholly, almost protectively colorless; The New Yorker once contemplated a profile on him, but concluded: "he just wasn't a person."

The paradox is that Newhouse's early story was the stuff of a novel. A particular novel, in fact. This biography could have been called What Makes Sammy Run, after Budd Schulberg's novel about "Sammy Glickstein," who connives and hustles his way to the top of the movie business, and expresses his cinema esthetic more or less in these words: "We're in the business of selling cans of film and we have to show a profit on every can."

"Sammy" Newhouse was born Solomon Neuhaus in 1895 on New York's Lower East Side. His grandfather was a rabbi. His father was a poor immigrant who made the leather "ends" of suspenders. He moved the family to Bayonne, New Jersey, failed in a small business, then got asthma and was incapacitated for further work. His mother kept the large family alive as a "customer peddler"--taking orders for dry goods which she lugged on her back from Manhattan to Bayonne. In 1908 Sammy, just out of eighth grade, and only 5 feet 2 inches in height, went to work. He took a cram course in stenography, typing and bookkeeping (tuition, $37.50) in downtown New York. Then his father got him a job with Hyman Lazarus, a lawyer and factotum in Bayonne's Jewish community. Shrewd, ambitious, active Sammy graduated quickly from "gofer" to accountant, bill collector, and office manager. Among Lazarus' many operations was a struggling paper, the Bayonne Times which he had taken over when it defaulted on a loan he had guaranteed. It operated from the ground floor of the building in which Lazarus had his office. One day in 1911 he said, "Sammy, go downstairs and look after the paper."

That's how the story begins. It goes on and gets better from there. "Sammy" proved to be a small genius in soliciting ads and controlling expenses. By 1912 he was making $75 a week. By 1917, having educated himself in all aspects of newspapering as a business, he foresaw the coming of chains and announced his intention of becoming an owner of more than one paper, and was diligently saving towards that end.

After a false start with the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, News (Yankee smalltown merchants were't ready to sell ads to a "little kike") he bought (with Lazarus, at first) the Staten Island Advance in 1922. It took him 10 years to acquire his next paper, the Long Island Press. Then he added a Newark paper. Not until 1939 did he break out of the New York City area with the purchase of the Syracuse Herald..

By that date, his methods were established, his strengths defined. He had a canny awareness of which neighborhoods and suburbs were growing and what features pulled in the housewives who would be the customers of his advertisers. He knew how to woo and when to armtwist local merchants to buy lineage. He took--in those early days--"broken down papers and made them pay," by looking at them strictly as business propositions.

He did not surround himself with professional managers, but with the cronies of his youth--Phil Hochstein as editorial assistant, Charles Goldman as his lawyer, Louis Glickman as accountant. Outsiders did not penetrate that circle. He browbeat and blackmailed competitors--Meeker gives full details--and battled unions in his plants with a feral intensity. Although he could not prevent the American Newspaper Guild from organizing in his editorial departments, he was able to fight them to a standstill by espionage, harassment, favoritism and -- in some cases--the enlistment of cops to break the heads of pickets.

The news content of his papers was something to which he professed total indifference. He made a stab at advocacy journalism in 1930, taking on the Staten Island commissioner of public works, David Rendt, on charges of corruption. Rendt was reelected triumphantly and Newhouse, no Pulitzer, mothballed his crusaders' armor permanently.

After 1939 the story becomes national in scope--and a shade less dramatic. Newhouse enjoyed the fruits of success--the Park Avenue apartment for himself, his wife Mitzi and their two sons--the New Jersey country estate, the trips to Europe, the flattery in the press. Now he sought out journalistic collectors' items--in Portland, Oregon, in New Orleans, in Birmingham, Alabama, in Denver, in Springfield, Massachusetts, in Cleveland, in St. Louis. Newspapers with long traditions of personal ownership and community involvement became parts of his financial empire. Sometimes he simply waved cash before the owners and sometimes he exploited the rivalries of the heirs of newspaper founders in order to find willing sellers, a practice that often kept him busy in the law courts. Wherever he took over papers he followed familiar strategies of consolidation, cost-cutting and firing--and in two cases (in Portland and St. Louis) he allowed avoidable and bitter strikes to take place.

He continued to keep a low profile until his advanced years, when he was persuaded to endow a School of Communications at Syracuse University, by Chancellor William P. Tolley, who first hit him up for picayune donations (a hundred thousand, then a million), and then landed a $15 million grant by telling Newhouse it was time for him to move up to the big leagues of donorship.

Meeker's purpose is not to paint Newhouse as some latter-day Iago, a character which scarcely suits him. He is content to note that the pattern of journalistic development from which Newhouse profited has given us "a journalism as bland and uninspired and unhelpful as the huge, faceless corporations that produce it." It's a charge that rings true for all but a handful of papers. Meeker's story has the ring of being up-to-the-moment. And yet on the other hand, it's the culmination of a process that's been around for a while. Some 60 years ago when an earlier consolidator, Frank Munsey, passed away, William Allen White wrote of him that he had brought to a once-noble calling "the talent of a meat packer, the manners of an undertaker, and the morals of a moneychanger." Said White of Munsey: "May he rest in trust."

You can't top that as it applies to Newhouse.