NEW YORK -- BERNIE BEATS RAP is Joe Kovach's initial impulse, scrawled in pencil on scrap paper. Minutes after the Goetz verdict hits the wires, he is groping for the next day's headline for the New York Daily News. "Instant identity is the first thing you look for," lectures Kovach, a deputy managing editor. "Simple, not cluttered. Bang."

Downtown at the New York Post, where executive editor Frank Devine has directed his troops to "spare no vehemence on Page 1" -- as though they needed prodding -- assistant managing editor Vinnie Musetto is having his own visions. "A gigantic picture with just one word," he suggests, sketching. Or two, perhaps. " 'THANK GOD' would be nice."

"Call him up and tell him to say it," mutters John Canning, the managing editor, charged with actually writing the head.

For Bernhard Goetz is being problematic, in tabloid terms. The Subway Vigilante has left the courtroom without saying a word, to the headline writers' chagrin, and he's declined to grin or give the thumbs-up sign, to the photographers' disgust. Now he's refusing to answer his phone.

In the end, the Daily News strips the simplest possible head across its first edition: GOETZ WINS. "It's shorter," says Kovach, "so it lets us make the type bigger." The type -- Kovach measures -- is 3 3/4 inches high.

At the Post, which makes no secret of its sympathies, Canning finally decides to lift a dramatic line from columnist Ray Kerrison: "A TRIUMPH FOR COMMON SENSE." He turns in the layout moments before deadline.

Nice, most of the editors nod. But one of them hesitates. "Is this really a classic tabloid headline? Can't we fit COED in it someplace?"

Condolences are hereby extended to newspaper readers forced to endure the spring in cities without daily tabloids. So far, 1987 has been quite a ride.

Everyone expected the Goetz trial to make for some eloquent headlining, but Bernie was soon blown off the front pages by Gary Hart, of all people (GARY'S LOVE BOAT FOLLIES -- the New York Post). The PTL scandal refused to die (REPENT & REPAY -- the Daily News), giving the Post still more opportunities to run photos of Jessica Hahn, the one-time "sexretary." Mayor Koch got into a spitting match with developer Donald Trump (IT'S WAR! -- the Post). The so-called "Preppie Murder" case began raunchy pretrial hearings.

There's been the normal complement of random violence (POLAR BEARS KILL CHILD IN BROOKLYN ZOO -- New York Newsday; MODEL KILLED BY CROCODILE -- the Post). There's been the usual cycle of municipal corruption and celebrity shenanigans, not to mention Fawn Hall. ("The three charming temptresses, Jessica, Fawn and Donna," the Post's Devine dubs them). And then, just as the papers were digging into THE BESS MESS -- the sordid saga of a Miss America gone wrong -- it was back to Goetz. (The final edition heads? GOETZ: IT'S BEEN HELL -- the Post; GOETZ JURORS SPEAK: 'HE WAS TRAPPED' -- the Daily News; and WE, THE JURY -- New York Newsday.)

"Crocodile Eats Model; Polar Bear Mauls Kid," says Geoffrey Stokes, The Village Voice's "Press Clips" columnist, appreciatively. "It's been a banner spring."

Fewer than a dozen major metro tabloids still publish in the United States. Three of them publish here, including the biggest (the New York Daily News sells about 1.3 million papers daily, trailing only The Wall Street Journal and USA Today among American newspapers); the boldest (Rupert Murdoch's New York Post); and the newest (New York Newsday, the offspring of the Times Mirror chain's Long Island paper, launched a major push two years ago).

Because tabloids remain, in many ways, a breed apart from ordinary "broadsheets," outlanders sometimes find them confusing, even appalling. Tabloids are sold differently and, to some extent, written differently. They speak in tongues. They call the Russian head of state "Gorby"; a municipal official becomes, in headlines, a "Commish."

So it might prove useful, for benefit of the uninitiated, to offer a sort of primer, a guide to newspapers compact enough to read on subways.

Tips on Tabs. This is it.

1. What Makes a Tab a Tab? Mike Pearl, known as The Dean in deference to his 20 years with the New York Post, can explain this handily. "Five things. Violence. Sex. Blood -- no, that doesn't count. Money. Kids. Animals. Is that five? Then it's six -- famous people, big names. Any two of these makes a page lead. Any three make a wood."

"A wood" is the anachronistic term for a front-page headline so big that it couldn't be set in lead and used to require special wooden type. It screams, basically. Several dozen examples are taped to the wall around Pearl's desk in the press room (a k a Pearl's Harbor) at the Criminal Courts Building. This is Pearl's fabled Wall of Shame, including such classics as HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR and 300-LB GIANT SEIZED IN SEX ATTACK and The Dean's personal favorite, 'SHE WAS NICE TO ME, THEN I KICKED HER OFF THE ROOF.'

Elsewhere on the press room walls, Frank Faso of the Daily News has taped his collection of gangster photographs, most depicting bloody deaths. (The New York Times has mounted an actual bulletin board, which tells you something.)

Tabs scream more than most broadsheets because of the way people buy them: Most U.S. newspapers rely overwhelmingly on home delivery, but more than 80 percent of the Daily News' and the Post's papers (and 55 percent of New York Newsday's) are sold on the street. "What you're trying to do," explains Dave Banks, who's been an editor at both the Post and the News, "is grab hold of a pedestrian's eyeballs as he walks past the newsstand."

There's more involved than big type and the easy-to-read-in-a-crowd size, however. The classic tab is sports-heavy; aficionados read it from back to front. It has mouthy columnists like the News' Jimmy Breslin (who recently, just in passing, called Ronald Reagan a "senile fool" and who's also announced that he's decamping to New York Newsday when his contract expires next year) and the Post's Dick Young (whose sports column recently urged Mets fans to boo troubled superstar Dwight Gooden on his return to Shea Stadium "to let him know how society feels about the wrong he has done").

It is intensely local, offering less national coverage than many broadsheets and minimal international coverage. Instead, a tab prides itself on knowing its city, which is why the Daily News' current ad slogan is "New York's Hometown Paper," a swipe at the newcomers from Long Island. (New York Newsday promptly poached the News' ad agency, which has topped itself with Newsday's current promotional jab, "On top of the news. Ahead of the times.")

And a tab has an attitude, an impudence that puts readers on a first-name basis with Gary and Bess and Ollie. "Rich People Are Unhappy" and "The Little Guy Can Be a Hero, Too" are two of Mike Pearl's favorite tabloid truisms, along with "Any Dead Woman Under 50 is Beautiful."

Who goes too far and who doesn't go far enough, in the continual tab tension between responsibly reporting news and grabbing readers' eyeballs, is the subject of considerable jousting. Tabloids, says Daily News editor Gil Spencer, "always have to fight the sensationalist image; some of them don't fight it too hard."

"Nothing's easier than being cautious and striving for impeccable good taste," retorts the Post's Devine. "That's not the tabloid way."

As for New York Newsday, it draws a certain amount of sneering from the other tabs because of its small-potatoes circulation (it's growing quickly, but still sells about 135,000 papers daily to the Post's 740,000) and because of its politeness. "A tabloid in a tutu," Spencer has called it.

New York Newsday editor Don Forst doesn't argue with that. Newsday's strategy is to find a demographic niche between the ailing Daily News and the lofty Times (which, Spencer says, "is somewhere up there looking down at all of us as if we were cockroaches"). This results in sometimes odd alternations between restraint (Newsday cautiously ran the late-breaking "Hartache" story on Page 4 the day the Post was howling about HART'S 'NIGHT WITH MODEL' STORM) and bravura (the next day, New York Newsday's front page featured a big swimsuit shot of Donna Rice). "If The Times is quiet at zero and the News is noisy at 10, we oughta be about a 6," Forst says.

2. Is Working for a Tab Different From Working for an Ordinary Newspaper? People say no, at first. They don't look so different from other journalists, no press cards stuck in fedoras. Their newsrooms are carpeted and reasonably clean -- even the Post's, a famous rat hole, was remodeled last year. They use rewrite people a fair amount (New York Newsday excepted), but don't actually say, "Get me rewrite."

Stories still circulate about the old days, when a sob sister from the late New York Mirror bought a nurse's uniform so she could walk past the cops guarding a hospitalized murder suspect. (She got into the hospital room, they say, only to find the patient consulting with two doctors from the Daily News.) But that was a long time ago.

On the other hand. Just last year, Tommy Hanrahan -- an eight-year veteran of the Daily News who's since chosen a quieter life in Maine -- showed up at the Scarpaci Funeral Home in Brooklyn, where an alleged mobster was laid out, toting a hundred bucks' worth of flowers. Was it Hanrahan's fault that the large gents at the door mistook him for a florist's delivery man and let him in for a few precious minutes? "It gave me a chance to eyeball who was in there," says Hanrahan.

He doubts that New York Times reporters would have pulled such a stunt. "They wouldn't have the imagination. And they wouldn't know where the funeral home was. They wouldn't know where Brooklyn was."

Tab reporters are also well-known stakeout artists, and don't seem even mildly troubled by invasion-of-privacy issues. In fact, The Miami Herald's Hartwatch draws hoots of derision in the press room down at Criminal Court for screwing up the surveillance. "The New York Post shoulda done this," Pearl announces. "We know how to do sleaze right!"

Speaking of which, the Post was ahead of everyone in procuring photos of "the three charming temptresses." On the scene in Miami with reporters, photographers, mobile phones and cash, photo editor Harry Siskind came up with a raft of Donna Rice pictures. While most of the press corps gathered for Rice's press conference in her lawyer's office, the Post team was chasing down the infamous cowgirl-in-a-barroom poster, which Siskind heard about from a gas station attendant while canvassing Rice's neighborhood. "Three hours from rumor to possession," Siskind says proudly. "We raced into the AP bureau and demanded a transmitter." At eight minutes to deadline, the photo (retouched to show less Rice) slid onto Page 1.

In the hotly competitive world of New York newspapering, reporters say it still occasionally happens that a journalist contacts a crime victim, claiming to be "calling from police headquarters downtown," without mentioning that it's the press room at police headquarters downtown that he's calling from. Or shows up at a crime scene without exactly saying who she is. "If people assume I'm a police officer or a detective, I let them assume," says Patrick Clark of the Daily News, who helped cover the Goetz trial opposite Pearl. "Which has happened; I look like a cop." "Most Daily News reporters look like cops," Pearl says.

Such subterfuge does appear to be losing favor in some quarters. It's verboten by Newsday editorial policy, Forst says. At the Daily News, city editor Arthur Browne says that misrepresenting oneself is "not something that should be done." He says this even though he himself suggested the floral ploy to Hanrahan. ("Extraordinary situation," Browne explains.)

At the New York Post? "I don't necessarily want to know the details," Devine demurs. "Ingenuity is very much part of a reporter's trade." Whereupon he tells how reporter Jim Nolan tried to get Oliver North's comment on Fawn Hall. "Why don't you do something useful, like paint my fence?" North reportedly had joked months ago, complaining about the reporters camped by his driveway. When Hall testified, Nolan and a photographer showed up at North's house in overalls, carrying brushes and paint cans. The caper failed -- North had left the house before the team arrived -- but Devine insists it will be tried again. "One improvises," he says.

3. How Does New York Support Three Tabloids When Most Cities Don't Have Any? The answer is it doesn't. All three papers are money losers currently, by design or by misfortune.

All three have lately undertaken journalistic self-improvement campaigns. New York Newsday has spent lavishly on editorial staff ("Any place I am is improved right there," Jimmy Breslin notes), gets high marks from other sportswriters for the depth of its sports section and is "right now, in terms of coverage of the city, the best paper in New York," says Voice critic Geoffrey Stokes. The Daily News has beefed up its business and entertainment coverage and added news pages. Its Wedtech investigations have helped indict 12 people, including a congressman and the Bronx borough president. Even the Post, with its Fleet Street predilections, has hired some good new people and plans to launch a Sunday edition, its first, within the year.

"The net effect," Stokes says, "is that we're getting more information."

Ultimately, however, whether "you can have all three of these babies playing in the same sandbox" (as Gil Spencer puts it) has far more to do with economics, where the forecasts are gloomy.

"The Post is the weak sister," says media analyst J. Kendrick Noble of Paine Webber. It has probably not shown a profit in the 11 years since Murdoch bought it; its losses now run between $6 million and $10 million annually, by analysts' estimates. But that's small change for Murdoch's News America Publishing, which seems willing to absorb considerable red ink in exchange for a soapbox in the nation's largest market. If the FCC allows Murdoch to keep both the paper and the local television station he bought two years ago, the Post could continue, a sort of vanity press, for years.

Newsday's parent is similarly deep -pocketed, losing more than $10 million a year on its New York entry and sounding positively cheery about it. "This is an incremental, long-term, stay-with-it kind of thing," says Times Mirror President David Laventhol. He anticipates New York Newsday's breaking even when it hits 200,000 to 250,000 in circulation, roughly two years away. If he's right, the corporation will have paid a bargain price for a viable New York newspaper (it helps that about half its content is shared with the Long Island version).

At greater risk is the Daily News, which just a decade ago had 600,000 more readers than it does now. The Tribune Co. tried and failed to sell it five years ago and was deterred from folding it only by union contracts and pension costs. Despite union concessions and deep staff cuts, the paper has wandered in and out of the red since then. It did not help that two major department store advertisers closed last year, or that the News has to come up with several million dollars in damages and legal fees after losing a racial discrimination suit brought by four of its black journalists.

If the union contract currently being negotiated provides the expected givebacks, it has "a reasonable shot at moving into the black in 1988," says analyst John Reidy of Drexel Burnham Lambert. Beyond that, "it's a question of whether it can convince advertisers that its readership is as attractive as ever," says John Morton of Lynch Jones & Ryan. "So far it's not had rousing success."

Barring wild cards like strikes or FCC threats, however, analysts can see all three tabs struggling on and elbowing one another for some indefinite period. "It's a fight for the middle, where the middle is shrinking," warns media columnist Edwin Diamond -- but it's a boon to readers as long as it lasts.

4. What Will Be the Hot Tabloid Story This Summer? Well, who can say? That's the thing about tabs: While broadsheets get stuck with predictable, boring stuff like economic summits and the federal budget, tabloids can go into a feeding frenzy over any juicy story that happens along.

The one to watch, of course, is the murder trial of Robert Chambers, who admits to strangling Jennifer Levin in Central Park last summer but claims he was reacting to a rough sexual encounter. Both the perpetrator and his victim were initially thought to be wealthy products of exclusive private schools; by the time it came out that Chambers was actually a dropout, the case had been indelibly labeled "The Preppie Murder." The pretrial hearings have been horrifying and riveting.

At first, Mike Pearl was worried that the Goetz marathon would force him to miss Chambers' trial. But there were delays, as so often in court cases, and now The Dean is free. "I won't miss a morsel," he exults.

Beyond the Chambers case, anything can happen. TOT FOILS SLASHER FIEND? KOCH, FAWN IN BIMINI TRYST? G-MEN NAB GOETZ, COED IN WEDTECH SCAM?

You never know. Two springs ago, for instance, the Post and the Daily News both went quite daft over one Cibella Borges, a policewoman fired for posing (while still a civilian) for nude photos in Hustler. When an appellate court reinstated her, and an airport press conference was scheduled upon her return from a California vacation, the journalistic gloves came off.

The day before Borges' return, the Daily News put reporter Randy Diamond and a photographer on a plane to Los Angeles, where they nabbed Borges for a 90-minute interview, phoned it in, then took her and her young son out to dinner. Thereafter, says Diamond, "my assignment was to follow her around L.A. and sit next to her on the plane next morning, and when we landed in New York to keep her away from the Post."

But at Kennedy, they encountered "an absolute mob scene. The networks were there; reporters were attacking each other." And a Post reporter had Borges entire family -- arrgghh! -- waiting in a limousine.

She whisked both the quarry and her relatives off to lunch in midtown. Diamond, cursing, followed the limo for a while in his Toyota, lost it somewhere en route, remembered that his Post rival had mentioned the restaurant's name, parked his car illegally nearby, walked in quietly and got the maitre d' to seat him at the table next to the Borges party, where he could hear every word.

"I sat down and I smiled at the Post reporter -- she gave me a dirty look -- and I ordered. I think I left it on her tab, too," he says.