Reporters in the Washington bureau of The New York Times decided that they could not sit quietly after five of their colleagues were told Wednesday that they could move to New York, leave or, in one case, retire.

Instead, yesterday they sent a strongly worded letter to Executive Editor Max Frankel protesting the moves as being "cruel and inhumane," as one reporter explained it. The letter, sent by Federal Express and signed by virtually all of the reporters who were in the office yesterday and Thursday, is to be followed by a trip to New York by a delegation that plans to speak with Frankel personally about the bureau's concerns.

The participating reporters made their decisions at a brown-bag lunch Thursday, an event that was not attended by the bureau's top managers, as some had expected. They also agreed that details should not be shared with outsiders because, as one reporter explained, they felt their protest would be more effective if kept inside the paper.

Still, journalists are in the business of imparting information, not withholding it. And by yesterday, word was beginning to seep out about the Thursday meeting.

One concern expressed repeatedly by reporters was that top editors hoped those remaining might simply feel relief at being personally unaffected and, as one put it, be willing to "let the waters close over the whole thing."

"What has happened is that this makes everybody feel vulnerable," another reporter said.

Times editors have passed the word that the transfers, or in one case early retirement, were ordered not because they wanted people to resign, but were rather a matter of beefing up the New York staff and scaling back the Washington bureau.

Various New York editors have grumbled that once a reporter is sent to Washington, he or she takes root and views a transfer to New York as step backward. One reason for that view, according to former and present Times reporters, is that such transfers have been used by previous Times administrations as a way to demote people or usher them out the door.

Those who learned they were being moved to New York are Jonathan Fuerbringer, who covers Congress and the federal budget; Neil Lewis, a diplomatic correspondent; Irvin Molotsky, a general assignment reporter covering culture and agencies; and Wayne King, a color and political writer.

Ben A. Franklin, a veteran Times reporter who had a widely reported disagreement with former executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, was reportedly offered early retirement.

Adding salt to the wounds at The Times this week was news that David Shipler plans to leave the Washington bureau in the spring or early summer.

Shipler, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book "Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," has told friends that he wants to write longer pieces on more complicated subjects -- i.e., books. Shipler did not want to comment on his plans.

Such a move, coupled with the departure to New York or elsewhere of Lewis, puts a dent in the diplomatic staff of the Washington bureau. Times officials did not want to comment, but one possibility mentioned by sources at the newspaper is that Thomas Friedman, the Times' correspondent in Jerusalem, could come to Washington after he takes a year off to write a book.

A possible upshot of these changes is that The Times could lose a position on the Standing Committee for congressional reporters, a group that has the job of allotting seats and press credentials at the national political conventions this year.

Fuerbringer, who was reportedly asked by Times management to run for the committee, was one of three reporters who had declared for the two committee slots normally allowed to the print media.

If Fuerbringer withdraws, as expected, there will be no election, according to those familiar with the committee's rules. That means the voices for the writing press will be the other two candidates: Charles Green of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and Jeffrey Birnbaum of The Wall Street Journal. Ms.' Missives

As of its February issue, Ms. magazine has been liberated.

Because earnings for the magazine were as scarce as male chauvinists on the staff, the publication was until recently a nonprofit corporation. This status allowed founding editor Gloria Steinem to get money from people and foundations supporting feminism, but it prohibited the publication from taking a political stand or supporting a political candidate.

In November, however, a prominent Australian media firm bought Ms. and converted it to a private corporation, thus permitting editorial endorsements. (The firm -- Fairfax Publications U.S. -- also owns The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne, Australia, and The Spectator in London).

Now that it's free to do so, Ms. has rated the crop of presidential candidates. Ranking highest on the list is Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, and lowest is former television evangelist Pat Robertson, a Republican.

Some choice comments:

On Al Gore, who ranked lowest among Democrats: "Would his suffragist grandmother approve of his macho talk about the Persian Gulf . . .?"

On Gary Hart, who ties for second place with Democrats Jesse Jackson and Paul Simon: He has a character problem in that "he wants what he wants when he wants it."

And of Sen. Robert Dole, who is the magazine's favorite among the Republicans: He is "trying to become Mr. Nice Guy, but all in all, we'd feel safer with Elizabeth (except maybe in the air)." Ms. was referring, of course, to his wife Elizabeth Dole, the former secretary of transportation.

But these are, the editors explain, "preliminary" choices.