This is a robust, fist-shaking city, and the Daily News has been part of its daily call to arms for 63 years.

In January 1928, when Ruth Snyder was executed at Sing Sing prison for the murder of her husband, the News gave its readers a photograph of her final convulsion in the electric chair. In 1937, a staff photographer was on hand to capture the Hindenburg in mid-explosion. When Mrs. Pauline Weitz walked to an ambulance with a bullet protruding from her neck in 1952, the News had a close-up. When Arthur Breton fell off a roof to his death two years later, the News picture somehow caught him in mid-air. He looked surprised.

WHO'S A BUM!

That's how the News reported the victory of the Brooklyn Dodgers over the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series. And when city services failed a borough during the blizzard of 1969, Page One yelled:

QUEENS CALLS THE MAYOR A SCHMOBALL

Times have changed, and recently the News tried to change with them. Tonight, its attempt at a classy, "upscale" afternoon edition to tap a new audience, was a one-year, $20 million disaster that closed in August of 1980. On Dec. 18, 1981, the News was put on the block by its owner, the Chicago Tribune Co. It will be sold, or fold.

What is the Daily News going to do about it?

"We're going back to our old kick-them-in-the-a-- policy," said James G. Wieghart, executive editor. "During the 1970s the News got toned down. It got laid back. What we need now is to remember the ways the News was good in the 1940s and '50s."

With daily sales of 1.5 million papers, the News is the nation's largest general circulation newspaper.

The tabloid will be read by about 4 million people this morning, or about 35 percent of the population of the urban area of New York. In an average week, 58 percent of the area's 13.4 million population sees at least one copy of the News.

In a poll taken in December 1980, 37 percent of respondents voted the News the most improved paper in New York. Nineteen percent thought the Times was most improved, and 16 percent, the New York Post.

On Thursday, Feb. 11, the News sold more advertising lineage than any other daily issue in its history: 311,000 ad lines, 70,000 more than that day the year before.

Its daily circulation, having dipped to 1.35 million after Tonight, is now back to 1.5 million. The Sunday circulation, which was 1.9 million last September, has risen to about 2 million.

So why is the Daily News in trouble? RON PALS SEEK DEFICIT TRIM

The bold morning headline flashes at Newsstand 1 of Grand Central Station, where the morning crowd is all arms and silvery quarters, a pushing, rushing organism with tentacles that draw in the paper for devouring.

"The Daily News is a great paper, always was," said Mac Brady, observing the ritual feeding like a keeper at a zoo. "Except for that abomination in the face of the Lord called Tonight." Brady works for the New York Post, distributing 8,000 papers a day by handcart to seven locations around the famous terminal.

"The News' problem isn't the Post. The problem is they've got a circulation of 1.5 million and they're staffed for 2.1 million."

Brady is a member of the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union; his father and grandfather were members, and his mother was secretary to the president of the union. The News is a union paper. Should the News lay off union men and women?

"Yeah. What else are they going to do?"

Acknowledged problems of the Daily News:

* The paper employs 3,800 people. A prospective buyer presumably would hope to cut that number by 1,000.

* An outmoded plant. At least $50 million is said to be required for new equipment.

* The public failure of Tonight, which suggested a paper with an identity crisis. Tonight's readership never surpassed 125,000, and when it died its sales were a paltry 75,000.

* A circulation battle with the New York Post. Now owned by the Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch, the Post is a sensational tabloid that also is losing money, but obviously smells the blood of its rival. The Post's circulation is up, too.

And yet, the plight of the New York Daily News is an anomaly. It is a fat morning paper with a huge readership and a relatively small operating deficit: about $12 million against a gross of $340 million.

Both the Philadelphia Bulletin and The Washington Star, two much-discussed newspaper closings of the past few months, had lost sizeable chunks of circulation, were conspicuously thin and were losing $20 million a year against much lower grosses. Time Inc. reportedly poured about $85 million into The Star before giving up the battle.

Less easily acknowledged are what a Daily News editor classifies as the "insolubles." They have to do not so much with the News, but with an American civilization that now accommodates television, radio, cable TV, home video recorders, Sony Walkmans, Atari games. The communications revolution was predicted for a long time. It is evidently here.

Ira Tumpowsky is a vice president and group supervisor at Young and Rubicam, the giant advertising agency. Advertising agencies place dollars. Radio, television, newspapers, magazines all seek to persuade Young and Rubicam that the best return on the ad dollar is through their medium.

"The culprit for the News is the networks," he said. "But we're learning what the future will be slowly, slowly."

Tumpowsky has four television sets at home. He notices that when his kids finish their homework, they usually go to one of the sets. It is the set hooked up to an Atari game show.

"We're moving into a era of choice," he said. "There are going to be more and more choices."

After the Tonight experiment in demographic destiny, "upscale" is now a term of derision. The News seems determined to be the News again, to regain the tradition everywhere apparent around 220 E. 42nd St.--the marvelous lobby with its Art Deco globe; the rough-and-ready newsroom, where a four-sided clock dominates every view, ticking down time to deadline; the fac,ade that the makers of the movie "Superman" chose to serve as the mythological "Daily Planet."

"Look, some things we can't change," said Wieghart, who took over as executive editor last March. "Demographics? That's over. We took that on the chin 20 years ago, when everybody moved to the suburbs. They changed their living habits, their party registration and their newspaper. In my opinion as an editor, that is insoluble. I'll give you an analogy. If it snows hard, the Daily News is going to sell 250,000 fewer papers. What can I do about it? Well, I can order a tent built over the city. Or I can cut the press run by 250,000."

As a practical matter, he believes the News is the News is the News.

"During the 1970s there was a conscious desire not to fill the paper with a lot of crime. But I think not to have crime reflected in the paper is wrong. When a man gets mugged or a policeman shot, that's what people will be talking about. So we're covering that more.

"The writing style is changing, too. Stories had gotten to be too long. We ran too many reaction stories. Reaction stories are bulls---. They are stories about what somebody said. I say, when somebody does something, that's what you should put in the paper.

"Ah, we're not really competing with the Post," Wieghart says. "What the Post is doing is cheap and obvious. They don't go out and get the stories, they just hype up stories that already exist. It's the British press formula: terror, horror and miracles.

"What we need is not that, but what we used to have. This is a tough city. You're crossing the street and a cab tries to run you over, so you pound on his hood with your fist. Those are our readers, and we have a deeply rooted image here.

"Sure, suburban papers have risen up. That's an insoluble problem and I'm not trying to solve it. In the '70s, the paper had 30 people covering New Jersey, and it didn't make any difference to circulation. So now I'm not putting my resources into New Jersey. We'll cover New York.

"I think our circulation will soon be back to 2 million. Since we concentrated on being the News again, our circulation loss has reversed. Sure, I'll take some of the credit."

Michael J. O'Neill, editor and executive vice president of the News, believes the "gut issue" for the News is costs.

"We are a very strong paper. We have no significant problems with readership or advertising. Yes, New York has lost a million in population in the past decade and perhaps 700,000 jobs.

"But the essential point is that you just can't continue to raise the price of the paper and the advertisements. What you really have to do is cut your costs."

O'Neill, who presided over the birth and death of Tonight, believes that edition was a victim of costs. "You say it was a flop? It was not a flop. Yes, we shut it down. It's not here anymore. But the issue is why? If we'd had a different cost structure, Tonight could have made money with a circulation of 100,000 a day."

Newsstands are the heart of the Daily News, and of the New York Post, too. Ten years ago there were 1,490 newsstands in New York. Now there are 370. Dealers buy the papers for about 20 cents and sell them for 25 cents. The newspaper is the "draw" that leads to sales of gum, candy, magazines.

There are many, many magazines for sale now. The weekly Life and Look are gone, replaced by scores of more specialized titles: Money, Running, Self.

Each week, Bert Kersen, executive vice president of Hudson County News, pours 3,300 separate magazines--each geared to a specific demographic group--into New York City.

"Yes, but it's not magazines that're hurting the News," Kersen said. "The problem is you've got a non-reading public now. I spent 30 years of my life in newspapers, and I'm telling you point-blank, it's television."

Proliferation:

In 1947, when World War II had ended and television had barely begun, the circulation of the Daily News was 2.35 million daily and 4.76 million Sunday.There was plenty of competition, but most of it was other newspapers.

To wake up in 1982, however, is to face a barrage of data that continues frenetically from breakfast to morning drive-time to lunch to evening drive-time to prime news time to 11 p.m. news time to "Nightline" time. It matters little if there is nothing new to report: News is relatively cheap programming, and advertisers like its atmosphere of veracity.

There are now 52 radio stations serving New York proper. The days when WABC alone had an audience of 5 million are over. "In other places, one station may still get as much as a 40 share," said Amy Krakow of WINS, the all-news station. "Here, the top-rated station gets at most a 7 or 8 share." WINS is holding its share, but not growing.

New York has news in Spanish on Channel 41 and 47, UHF stations that have greatly improved reception since the city's master antenna was moved from the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center. For Manhattan's cable television subscribers, there is TV news 24 hours a day from Cable News Network. Even the telephone gets into the act. Let your fingers do the walking. And for weather, call WE6-1212. In any area code.

The information barrage is mobile now. When New Yorkers leave their TV screens, many carry radios with them. At a newsstand at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, Daily News territory, a woman office worker in high heels stops, wearing her Sony Walkman. In line before her stands a fellow member of the coveted 18 to 34 merchandise-buying group. He wears a sharp hat, and carries on his shoulder a stereo radio the size of suitcase.

They still buy the News. But do they buy it every day?

If every Daily News reader were distracted one day a week, the Daily News circulation would fall by 14 percent.

"That's kind of a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question," Les Bridges said. He is the vice president for marketing of the News, with an airy, well-trafficked office on the fifth floor. The question had been: "If people have so many new sources of information, doesn't something have to give?" "It's not mutually exclusive," Bridges said. "Look, this paper has tremendous reach, tremendous impact. We have 45 percent of black readership. On a five-day cume we have 71 percent. We have 39 percent of the Spanish-speaking market. The weekly cume is 60 percent. El Diario only has 16 percent. These are our people. They watch TV, they have radio, but we're not suffering any major encroachment.

"Look, we have potential that was overshadowed by the failure of 'Tonight.' For example, in the 1960s the paper missed getting the classified ads. How is inexplicable to me, but we did. If a secretary is looking for a new job, she has to put down her newspaper--the News--and go find a copy of the Times. That's ridiculous.

"Classified is a very efficient moneymaker. Ours was up 20 percent last year, and we are hoping that will continue."

To Bridges, the immediate trends seem encouraging. Circulation is up. Ad lineage is up. The "upscale" concept is down. And the future--cable TV and who knows what else--can be rosy.

"I've just been working up a presentation about that," Bridges said. "Eventually, we will have cable in Brooklyn and Queens, although it's a few years off. I think it will help us. Experience has shown that when cable TV comes into a community, it hits the networks hardest. In one case, network viewership plunges from 89 percent right into the 50s. But the News will still be there, with everybody looking at it."

"It's like we've got a lingering disease," said Frank Van Riper of the mood in the paper's Washington bureau. "We got the bulletin on Dec. 18. Five bells ringing on the wire machine. I said, gee, there must be something happening in Poland. But the slug was 'Daily News,' and when we saw the Chicago dateline, it was like a kick in the stomach.

He blames management, both in Chicago and New York. "It seems like every major business decision they've made has been a disaster. Also, you get the impression that the paper wasn't making money fast enough--so it was raped by Chicago."

Van Riper holds a special place in the recent history of the News. As White House correspondent, he wrote the story of President Ford's avowal that New York City would not be bailed out of bankruptcy by the federal government. The headline was a new classic: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD

The headline still decorates his office. "Our brand of punchy and accurate journalism should still be practiced," he said proudly. "But yeah, everybody here is looking for work. In your head you think maybe some new owner will come in and sink 50 or 100 million into the paper and everything will be all right. But in your heart, you figure the Daily News won't be around after the first quarter of this year."

Meanwhile, back to the new "old" News:

The slogan "New York's Picture Newspaper" has now vanished from the front page. "I know," said Wieghart. "The photo department would like to have it back. So would I. I told them we could say it's New York's picture newspaper again when it's true again.

"We need more action pictures, which means more free-lance. Our pictures were getting laid back. The editors used to throw them out, you know, to save space for more words."

Wieghart agrees that the New York Post is "very aggressive" on pictures. The News has a larger staff of photographers, but the Post uses more free-lancers. And the Post cuts little wisecracks into its layouts: a drawing of a camera over the legend, "The Most Touching Pictures Are in the Post."

As much as its pictures, headlines have always defined the News. But the Post has flashy headlines too. A front-page banner last week read: PIGGY BANK BANDIT STABS BOY, 9

The News did not include the piggy-bank angle in its headline. Does that example reveal different editorial policies between the competing tabloids?

"I'll tell you what happened with that," Wieghart said, leaning forward over his desk. "Our reporter in that case did not observe the piggy bank. He did not have the wit to ask whether there was a piggy bank. He just didn't notice, and when he called the story in to the rewrite man he didn't mention it. There were recriminations around here about us not having the piggy bank angle.

"But on the other hand," Weighart continued, "I don't think that story was worth big black type on the front. I wouldn't have used it there. You want to know the difference between our headlines and theirs? Well, it's very difficult to write headlines that are both lively and accurate. The difference is, ours are accurate."

As the competing media wrestle, they also embrace:

Dick Young, the sportswriter, quit the Daily News after 45 years because the News, in the face of a close-down possibility, refused to guarantee his contract. Young took his column to the Post.

Both papers sputtered for days, and the Post finally ran a big story titled: "Why I joined the Post: DICK YOUNG TELLS IT LIKE IT IS."

The story began: "In a dramatic appearance on TV last night, Dick Young, the celebrated New York sportswriter, explained for the first time why he decided to move to the New York Post from the Daily News."

The Chicago Tribune Co. says discussions are under way with several interested buyers.

A favored candidate is Warner Communications. Its chairman, Steven J. Ross, is a New Yorker. His company is a force in cable TV, owns Seven Arts movie company, and has acquired Atari Games, which alone is expected to take in almost $2 billion in 1982.

The Chicago Tribune Co. says "no timetables are involved" in the fate of the News.

But there is always a rumor, and the rumor is the end of March.