Ken Noble, first vice president of Paine Webber Inc. and a longtime analyst of newspaper companies, gave a thumbnail sketch of the recent economic history of The New York Times:

"The first time I ever wrote about the company was in 1969. I said don't touch the stock for the next few years. Lousy labor relations, a lousy typographers union contract, a lack of direction.

"But by the late 1970s, the Times management saw it as a dominant paper in a niche, and that niche being the upscale market . . . Now I think they regard themselves as unassailable in New York, and I think they are. The Times has a dominant share of the advertising market in their area, even though they have less of the circulation share. But they are therefore more profitable."

Times executives boast, for example, that the Sunday paper, a copy of which now weighs about 10 pounds and goes to about 1.6 million people, generates revenues of more than $1.3 million per pound.

The Sunday magazine,the envy of publishers around the nation, is fat with expensive ads costing up to $27,930 per full, color page. A recent issue peddled Jaguars, Guccis, three kinds of champagne, 12 kinds of fur coats, a $5,990 watch at Tiffany's, and apartments at 100 U.N. Plaza that start at $330,000 for a "pied a terre" (an efficiency) to $5 million for a penthouse.

The Times' formula for financial success is unique among big metropolitan dailies in the United States. Instead of seeking steady increases in gross circulation, The Times aims primarily for the top readers -- which means the wealthiest readers -- to attract the top advertisers.

As former Times managing editor Clifton Daniel explained it recently: "The audience of The New York Times . . . first and foremost, is affluent. It is not the only characteristic of The Times' audience -- readers are also highly educated and highly sophisticated. But the reason the New York Post can't make any money is because it can't get advertising, and the reason it can't get advertising is that its audience doesn't have any money.

"Saks doesn't advertise in the New York Post. They advertise in The New York Times because that's where the dough is," Daniel said.

The Times is bought by only 10.05 percent of the households in the New York metropolitan area. By contrast, the Chicago Tribune gets 23 percent in the Chicago area; the Los Angeles Times reaches 24 percent; The Boston Globe has 36 percent, and The Washington Post 55 percent of the households in greater Washington.

Almost half of the readers of The Times have a college degree or higher and live in households that earn more than $35,000 a year. More than 40 percent of the readers are professional or managerial class employes -- a high profile that gets even higher outside the New York area. About 116,000 buy the national edition of the paper (sold nationwide outside the Boston-Washington corridor) every day and about 207,000 on Sunday.

"Any product that is consumed by an elite group or clearly by upper income groups, it makes sense to advertise in The New York Times," said Richard Kostyra, media director of J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

Over the past decade, circulation went up 16.3 percent for the daily Times and 9.2 percent for the Sunday paper. In 1975 the New York Times Co. had revenue of $408.9 million and net income of only $12.8 million; last year total revenues were $1.2 billion, a three-fold increase since '75, and profts were $100.2 million, an eightfold increase.

Since the early '70s The Times has improved its operation in virtually every sphere. One key ingredient was a 1974 contract with the New York Typographical Union that allowed the paper to begin automating and to shrink its work force. When the contract was signed, The Times employed 846 printers. Today there are 287. The change saved about $30 million and helped the paper move into the new, computerized technology that has transformed the American newspaper industry.

And as the mother paper struggled to get her feet on the ground, The Times Co. invested in small newspapers around the southeast, buying wisely in private negotiations before the period of the highly public bidding wars that drove prices up.

The next step is to expand the national edition, which now takes from the company coffers instead of filling them, a situation that Times executives suggest is only temporary; circulation rose almost 19 percent in the last year. And readers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland -- among others -- can now get their Times home-delivered.

"Our strategy has been to unroll the national edition gradually, not to try to force-grow it," Sulzberger told a financial publication recently. " . . . We do not have the same philosophy of wide-scale distribution as USA Today. We're after a very select group of people with high demographics, who will help us in the business of selling advertising."

Several advertising executives said that The Times is still not read widely enough around the country to be considered a good buy for many national advertisers, who opt instead for Time or Newsweek. But for the newspaper of record, the national marketplace now appears the most promising area for future growth.