The News American died yesterday the way most newspapers die, with a sudden call for a news room meeting.

"It happened about 10 a.m.," said Linda Linley, a consumer affairs editor who had been at the paper 16 years. "Mr. Grier came down from New York, and he read what was essentially the press release that went out on the wires."

That would be J. Roger Grier, a Hearst vice president, who announced that The News American, Maryland's oldest daily, dating from 1773, had at that moment suspended publication.

"It's the old problem of the afternoon paper that nobody has time to read," said Linley as she left at lunchtime carrying a box of papers and books.

"For the past six months we've been watching the erosion, as people would leave and not be replaced. It was hard to make yourself come to work every day. Last week we got an inkling when they stopped the presses periodically and had the staff search every page for possible sabotage. Then there were security guards all around the building today."

Under the big black banner headline "SO LONG, BALTIMORE," the Hearst Corp., the paper's owner since 1923, reviewed its long search for a new owner and the struggles to keep going as circulation dwindled to 107,000 against The Evening Sun's 150,000.

"My only regret," said sportswriter Bill Stetka, also carrying a box across the vacant lot alongside the red brick building on Lombard Street, "is that we didn't get to put out one good final edition, a good farewell."

He blamed the paper's history of late publication and delivery, caused by downtown rush hour and Harborplace traffic.

"Baltimore's a one-newspaper town, I guess," he said. "I should be at the Kemper Open right now, but I'll be going home."

Bob Swann, a night news editor and makeup man, had been at The News American 11 years, had won a University of Michigan journalism fellowship in 1978. He is 39, is married and has a son.

"We knew it was a matter of time," he said. "We really didn't think anybody would buy it, but we kept hoping. We saw a lot of good people drain away. The news room was down to a skeleton crew. I don't know what I'll do next. I have some feelers out."

TV cameramen, photographers and reporters stood in bunches around the somber building, which was closed to the public. Circulation vans and cars clogged the alley, and at the loading dock a crowd of men in rolled-up shirt sleeves hung about the slack conveyor belts, waiting for nothing.

"I heard it on the radio," muttered Joe Gustatis. "That was the way I learned about it. I been in street sales 34 years. It don't mean a thing."

Gary Hopkins, president of Local 503, said he was fired from his job as district manager of home deliveries just last Thursday for insubordination after an argument. He is 32 and has a 3-week-old daughter.

Albert Di Peppe, street sales: "What happened was they changed the front page. They put in boxes and spiced it up. They were trying to appeal to the yuppies, but young people don't read papers, so what happened was they lost the old-timers."

The News American, he recalled, was Baltimore's leading paper until 20 years ago. "When I was a kid, there was a guy two doors down who worked for The News American, and it seemed like it was such a great place to work that I wound up here myself. It was the paper to read in Baltimore. It was the real Baltimore paper."

Miles from downtown Baltimore, old news hands mourned the demise of yet another afternoon daily, recalling how two young Yale graduates named Henry Luce and Briton Hadden worked there for a few months in 1920 while they dreamed of the news magazine they would launch, a slick weekly they would call Time.

The paper was the Baltimore News then, according to alumnus John Walter, now with USA Today. A few years later Hearst bought it, merged it with the Baltimore Post and ran it weekdays, with the Hearst American on Sundays. In the '60s the whole operation was renamed The News American.

*"It was the kind of paper," Walter said, "that on the day Hitler's body was found in 1945 ran an extra with a five-column picture of . . . Eva Braun."

Once the assistant managing editor for news at the paper still called by some the News-Post, Walter remembers the glory days, when "we were Baltimore's paper, written for the real Baltimore, the working people, and The Sun was the stuffiest thing ever created by man. We ran lots of editions, we'd replate at the drop of a hat, we were the lively voice of a community that was more important in Baltimore than it is in most American cities. We were their paper.

"One time in '78 The Sun was running a three-part series on avalanches in Switzerland, and, my God, there were murders in Dundalk, breweries closing, high school drug scandals -- a hundred good stories a day right here in town. And that was what we were covering."

When the paper's fortunes began to sag, it closed part of its building, which had opened with such fanfare in 1940, and the news staff huddled in tiny quarters at the front.

"On Saturday noon we'd bring out this crazy first edition of the Sunday paper called the Tomcat edition," Walter said. "We'd sit around and plan all the changes we'd make for the real Sunday paper that night.

"And then around 11 p.m., when we'd get the final page proofs, we'd sit there in that little room overlooking the harbor with all the lights, and we'd go over the paper for a final edit, and there was just no better place to be than the Baltimore News American."

At the Melchior nursing home on Charles Street, the staff hadn't heard that the paper was finished. Two issues were supposed to be delivered there that afternoon. It used to be more, but the subscribers switched because delivery was too inconsistent.

"You mean the News-Post isn't coming?" murmured the nurse on duty. "You mean we won't see it anymore? I can't believe it."