NEW YORK -- Bill Hoffmann is revved up. There's been a shooting on Long Island -- a good one, where a young girl's neighbor was shot while trying to stop two masked burglars -- and he's got an interview with the girl's father.

"A Long Island schoolgirl's scream of terror became a nightmare for a neighbor who went to investigate and ended up being shot in the face by two thugs," he types into his computer terminal at the New York Post.

"People in the city love this style of writing," says Hoffmann, 33, who joined the paper three years ago and now seems to have tabloid ink in his veins. "Post headlines are New York. We write the way people talk. We don't have commas after every couple of words.

"If we didn't write this way, with a good belt, a good kick, with a little Worcestershire sauce, a lot of people wouldn't read the newspaper. The average reader on the street, their attention span is so limited anyway, just living in New York, where things happen so fast, that they don't have time to read more."

Hoffmann and 1,200 reporters, editors, photographers, sportswriters, press operators, drivers and other employees are facing the possibility that no one will be able to read their paper after March 6. Unless the Post is sold to one of about a dozen interested buyers, whose bids are due today, the paper will probably go the way of the Mirror, the Journal-American, the Herald Tribune and a dozen other ghosts of New York's journalistic graveyard.

The March 6 deadline emerged from a back-door maneuver by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who pushed through a congressional rider that forces publisher Rupert Murdoch to comply with "cross-ownership" rules that bar one company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market.

Unless Murdoch can win a reprieve in Washington (his News America Publishing Inc. filed an appeal yesterday with the U.S. Court of Appeals), he will be forced to sell or close the Post in order to keep WNYW-TV, New York's Channel 5 (Murdoch also has until June to sell the Boston Herald or his Boston TV station). Since Murdoch has indicated he has no intention of selling Channel 5, the flagship of his Fox Television Network, the Post's future looks grim.

But those who work at this two-fisted tabloid are not quite ready to write their own obituary. The Post's unions, backed by Mayor Edward I. Koch and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), have launched a rescue campaign emphasizing the fate of the paper's employees.

As the final deadline approaches, one might expect to find gloom and despair at a paper that already is spilling nearly $20 million a year in red ink. But while there is a palpable nervousness in the air, the news room remains a feisty and irreverent place that reflects the paper's spirit.

"Here's this rich guy who's sniping at this other rich guy, and we're in the line of fire," says reporter Linda Stevens. "Rupert Murdoch will be rich the day after the paper goes out of business. Ted Kennedy will be rich the day after the paper goes out of business. And there will be 1,200 people trying for the first time in their lives to figure out how unemployment works."

In the last decade, struggling afternoon newspapers have been more beloved than read. The Washington Star, the Chicago Daily News and the Philadelphia Bulletin are among those that succumbed to the economics of trying to be the second or third paper in a town where advertisers want the biggest circulation bang for their buck and many people have grown accustomed to getting their headlines from television.

Failing papers tend to breed a special kind of closeness, like an outgunned Army unit that thrives on defying long odds. Their lean and hungry staffs work around the clock in an effort to scoop the big, dominant but slower-moving morning paper. That ethic seems firmly entrenched at the New York Post, whose reporters love nothing better than to stick it to The New York Times' huge metro desk or to their tabloid competitors, the Daily News and New York Newsday.

Post Managing Editor Jim Fabris recalled his final days at the Chicago Daily News in 1978, when the owners suddenly pulled the plug on a final attempt to salvage the prize-winning paper.

"The fact that the newspaper died was not unexpected, but to be raped by your own people was cruel, and someone needed to be stomped on," Fabris says in the kind of tabloid shorthand favored by Post folks. "It took a long time to get over. It's a death in the family. It's like your brother or mother or father dying."

Now Fabris is facing the prospect of a second funeral, but one in which the eulogies would be mixed. Unlike the acclaimed Chicago Daily News, he says, "the Post is fiercely beloved by many and fiercely despised by many. But people here thumb their nose at the world and go out and do a good job.

"It's a good read. It's not a heavy, ponderous read. Does that mean it's junk? In some people's view it's junk. But somebody out there is buying it."

Like everyone at the Post, Fabris is keenly aware that his paper is regularly ridiculed by the journalistic elite. Some are openly embarrassed by the paper's excesses. But all insist that the Post is a serious publication that breaks important stories, despite banners of the "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" variety.

"We're not sleazy, we're sensational, but with a good deal of humor and sophistication," says Executive Editor Frank Devine, a New Zealand-born veteran journalist. "There's no attempt to be definitive or the paper of record. We go for the shiny and the jagged."

More than anything, Post people are proud of their quick reaction time. Just before one of his first deadlines at the Post, Fabris says, an editor burst into the composing room with a picture of a wounded cop in the Bronx, 45 minutes after news of the shooting first crackled over the police radio.

"I've seen terrific city desks, but I never saw a performance like that," Fabris says. "I just stood in awe."

The Post is also the kind of place where work and fun mix easily, where reporters gather at the Lion's Head in Greenwich Village for after-hours drinking and schmoozing. "It's like everyone's in the john together," Stevens says. "Everyone knows everyone else's trials and tribulations."

But for the younger staffers, who might have a harder time in the job market, the fun has been tempered by a growing sense of insecurity. "It's tense," says reporter Chris Olert. "Every new face that walks into the city room, everyone's wondering, is that the new publisher?"

The veterans, though, remain stoical. Assistant Managing Editor Steve Cuozzo says he has lived through "far scarier crises" since he joined the Post in 1972, four years before liberal publisher Dorothy Schiff sold it to Murdoch.

"We were seemingly on the brink of extinction about 12 times in a much more heart-stopping way than this has yet become," Cuozzo says. "I have full confidence in the boss {Murdoch} to somehow steer us through this as long as he is legally able to."

The Post's South Street building, which hugs the East River and commands a spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a throwback to the days when newspapers were built near highway ramps to save a few minutes for their delivery trucks. But the Post is far older than the building, which was once home to the Journal-American. Founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton, the New York Post is -- and brags about being -- the oldest continuously published daily in the United States.

Inside, where one might expect to find coffee-stained desks with middle-aged men shouting for "rewrite," there is a young, casually dressed staff in a high-tech news room with blue-gray carpeting and the omnipresent hum of Harris computers.

Early Tuesday morning, more than a dozen reporters were updating stories for the 11 a.m. deadline. After years of churning out eight editions a day, the Post has slashed costs by cutting back to two, a morning paper and a midafternoon one aimed at homeward-bound commuters.

The morning's Post offered a vivid contrast to The New York Times, which, in a story on celebrations honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., mentioned in the fourth paragraph: "Mayor Koch had to shout to be heard uptown in Harlem, where a small group of hecklers disrupted a church service honoring Dr. King." The Post ran a huge Page 1 photo of the jeering protesters with a screaming headline: "KOCH FACES BLACK RAGE."

On Page 3 was a Cindy Adams column on Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev's recent visit to Washington: "RUDE RAISA'S CAPITOL OFFENSES -- D.C. STILL GAGGING OVER HER PUTRID MANNERS & 'BIGOTRY.' " Much of the account was attributed to "a presidential candidate's wife."

By noon the afternoon edition was out, and Koch was replaced by a smiling picture of the "LONG ISLAND DAD-KILLER," Cheryl Pierson, who had just gotten out of prison for arranging the murder of her father, who sexually abused her.

Some Post exclusives, such as a juror's account of the trial of subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, are purchased with cold cash. Devine says he hates to pay for scoops, "but if someone's gonna blow us out of the water for lack of a thousand bucks, I'll pay it."

From the perspective of the typical reader -- which is to say, with one arm hanging from a subway strap -- there would be several reasons to mourn the passing of the Post. Chief among them is its sports section, which lustily cheers the Yankees and Mets and Jets and Giants when they win and mercilessly savages them when they lose.

On Tuesday's back page, for example, the Post announced: "YANKS CAN'T LOSE -- CANDY CLINCHES AL EAST FOR BOSS' BOMBERS." (For out-of-towners, the paper was declaring the 1988 pennant race over because the Yankees had acquired pitcher John Candelaria.)

While the sports section was hurt by the death last year of curmudgeon columnist Dick Young -- "People would buy the paper from rage to see what the SOB was saying," Devine says -- lots of people still read the paper backward.

Other readers are drawn to the paper's gossipy Page 6, its vastly improved television and arts coverage and its staunchly conservative editorial page, a sharp right turn from the more liberal editorial voices in town.

But fewer readers are plunking down their 35 cents. While the Post once jacked up its circulation to more than 900,000 through Wingo games and other gimmicks, it has now deliberately let sales fall to around 550,000 in an effort to cut costs and boost its share of local advertising, which is less than 10 percent.

And even if a bidder for the paper is found by today's deadline, Post executives say they don't expect a serious newspaper company, or even a wealthy developer, to underwrite the paper's losses for years, as Murdoch has pledged to do.

Why does the Australian-born publisher continue to subsidize the Post? To Village Voice media critic Geoffrey Stokes, Murdoch's Post is "a slimy operation" that "exists to play politics." He noted that even after the cutbacks, the Post continues to defy economic logic by shipping same-day editions to Washington so Murdoch will have a pulpit in the capital.

The Post's hostility toward Kennedy during the 1980 presidential campaign, when it sent reporters to Europe to track down his alleged girlfriends, is well known. The paper's faithful devotion to Koch, whom it virtually drafted for an unsuccessful 1982 run for governor, is also part of political lore.

In 1984, after Geraldine Ferraro became the Democratic vice presidential nominee, the Post's metro editor put out an internal memo saying that Ferraro's honeymoon was over and that it was "time we took the gloves off and made the pendulum swing back ... She has to be nailed on abortion" and on her voting record as a "Big L Liberal." This should produce "an anti-Ferraro Page 1," said the memo, which was later published by The Voice.

While the Post may be a unique political soapbox, most media analysts agree that it is an economic basket case that will probably never turn a profit. All the more reason, say Post editors, for Congress to allow Murdoch to use his television profits to prop up the paper.

"It's not a corpselike situation," Devine says. "It's not like a newspaper closing down because all the readers have gone away and the owners have lost heart."

Bill Hoffmann is disappointed. His story about the Long Island schoolgirl's scream of terror was spiked because police wouldn't let a Post photographer take pictures. "Everything is pictures around here," he says. "They would've played it up big, too. They love hero stories."

But it is a new day and Hoffmann is off on a story about "a Queens sex monster who stalks little girls." Perhaps it will even compare with his classic suicide tale, "YOUTH GULPS GAS, EXPLODES." And by late afternoon he is onto a new urban outrage, "MACE MANIAC'S SUBWAY RAMPAGE."

Lest anyone think he is uncritical of his paper, Hoffmann says he is "literally embarrassed" about some of the Post's front-page editorials. "But we're the gutsy, sensationalist tabloid and you have to read us because we have gorgeous girls on Page 3 and hard-hitting stories and political corruption," he says.

Hoffmann can only hope that he does not become a newspaper statistic six weeks from now.

"This is the best job I've ever had," he says.