PHILADELPHIA -- Hours after Eugene L. Roberts Jr. announced he was stepping down as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, his successor, Maxwell E.P. King, told hundreds of anxious staffers that the Knight-Ridder chain would maintain the paper's commitment to first-rate journalism.

"He said all the right things about continuing the Roberts tradition and blah blah blah," one reporter recalls. "He recited the promises {from Knight-Ridder}. Then one person asked, 'Why do you believe them?' There was a bit of a silence. And Max said, 'That's the question, isn't it?' "

Since his July 31 announcement left some staffers in tears, Roberts, 58, has been showered with praise for his 18-year record in turning one of America's worst big-city papers into a widely acclaimed, prize-winning success. Today, 1,000 journalists from around the country will gather at the Ben Franklin House here for a seven-hour extravaganza in which the slow-talking Southerner will be honored with gifts, speeches, skits and a video documentary on his career.

But Roberts, who seems a black-and-white figure in an era of four-color weather maps, leaves behind a newspaper undergoing something of a midlife crisis. Many staffers openly worry whether the Inquirer's strengths -- the long features, the hard-hitting investigations, the 15 correspondents from Boston to Berlin -- have fallen out of favor with a corporate management more concerned with propping up profits in a depressed economy.

With Philadelphia tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, ad revenue for the Inquirer and its sister paper, the Daily News, dropped 16 percent in August compared with the previous year. Knight-Ridder has left 30 newsroom positions vacant at the Inquirer and cut the space available for news by 6 percent on weekdays and 12 percent on Sundays.

Roberts is cautious in discussing the cutbacks and insists they did not cause his departure. Still, he says the paper "can't take a lot more cutting without doing, I think, some real long-term harm, probably irreparable harm."

King is more emphatic: "There's no question we took some difficult hits. The amount of news {space} that was cut is serious and damn close to an artery... . Gene certainly felt they cut too far too fast."

Reflecting a Larger Crisis

In a larger sense, the uncertainty at the Inquirer is mirrored in newsrooms around the country as an industry that grew fat on double-digit profit margins in the 1980s struggles with a sharp advertising downturn. Many papers have frozen hiring, slashed travel budgets, trimmed bonuses, even laid off reporters.

Here in Philadelphia, the feeling of unease is heightened by the cultlike status of Gene Roberts, a rumpled, eccentric figure whose merest mumbles were invested with mystical meaning by his staff, many of whom call themselves his "disciples." If Roberts created the Inquirer in his own image, it is not clear whether the paper can thrive under a new, more austere order.

Jonathan Neumann, who oversees investigative projects, says a senior editor told him several months ago that "I don't believe we're going to be able to do these stories anymore. I think the people in Miami {Knight-Ridder headquarters} have zero interest in these kinds of stories." While Roberts and King both disputed that assessment, Neumann says, he has failed to win approval for several projects that he believes would have been approved in the past.

"It always comes down to a staffing problem," Neumann says. "To do these stories, you need to free up a reporter for months, maybe a year. Do you spend your money on 300 daily stories a year that the wires are going to do anyway, or on three stories a year that no one else will ever do and everyone will notice?"

"We used to have an operating mode around here that costs just never came up," one reporter says. "It was someone else's job to worry about that. Your job was just to get the best story. In the last three or four years we began to hear, 'We can't afford that.' "

But Knight-Ridder President P. Anthony Ridder says there is a "misconception" that the Inquirer's budget has been cut, when actually it has stayed slightly ahead of inflation.

"The fear that there's going to be less investigative reporting, I think that's unfounded," Ridder says. "We are very proud of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I'm very proud of the fact that we've won all those Pulitzer Prizes. If we wanted to maximize profit, wouldn't we be operating with fewer people than a year ago? We haven't closed down a single bureau."

Roberts, a squat, sometimes scowling man whose nickname is "The Frog," will become a Knight-Ridder consultant, advising editor at the Washington Journalism Review and professor at the University of Maryland; he also plans to write a book. He says he had long planned to retire at 55 but agreed to stay on for three more years.

An editor given to vague aphorisms such as "Keep on keepin' on," he is less than eloquent at explaining his decision, although he hints it was time for a younger generation to take over. "I'd been at it for 18 years," Roberts says. "I just think it's time for someone else to take over. My batteries could use some recharging."

The Roberts Myth

The son of a North Carolina country editor, Roberts worked his way through college selling Bibles and found work as a farm reporter for the Goldsboro (N.C.) News-Argus. After stints at newspapers in Raleigh, Norfolk and Detroit, Roberts joined the New York Times, where he covered the 1960s civil rights struggle and later became the paper's national editor.

Upon taking the helm at the Inquirer in 1972, Roberts seemed determined to invent a freewheeling writer's paper that differed markedly from the staid Times -- "zigging when everyone else was zagging," as he put it. He recruited lots of rookies in their twenties and turned them loose.

Many reporters found Roberts odd -- he once set his desk on fire while smoking -- and would trade stories about his slow-motion conversations. "He'll stop in the middle of a sentence -- and just stop -- and there's this period where you begin to get embarrassed for him," a former employee says.

But most were inspired by his vision of the paper. "Gene made it possible for us to do our best work," says reporter Carol Horner. "There was always a sense that you were encouraged to reach."

If some stories seemed defiantly offbeat -- a multi-part series on the rhinoceros, extensive coverage of Hmong refugees, a front-page piece on the prune -- there was a method to the madness. "We took a lot of heat about the famous rhino story," says medical reporter Don Drake. "But what it said to the staff was, 'If we think it is an important story, screw what the rest of the world says, we're going after it and we'll spend what is necessary to get that story.' "

While killing off the rival Bulletin, Roberts's Inquirer also racked up 17 Pulitzers in 18 years, several for investigations of police brutality, corruption in the local courts, inhumane conditions at a state mental hospital and an unjustly imprisoned local man. While cynics see the paper as obsessed with journalism awards, Steve Twomey, an Inquirer Pulitzer Prize-winner who spent 14 years there and is now a Washington Post reporter, says the explanation is simpler: "The Inquirer covers local news better than any newspaper in the country."

In recent years, some of Roberts's most talented "kids" have drifted away, some in search of larger playing fields. "The problem for national and foreign correspondents, having been out there and tasted the exotic time zones of other places, was that they couldn't quite grasp why they were being asked to do local news again," says Twomey, a former Los Angeles and Paris correspondent for the paper.

Roberts never bought into the idea of flashy graphics and snippets of news. He has little use for most color photographs in newspapers, calling them "phony and soft." As for the current emphasis on shorter stories, Roberts says: "The industry has gotten used to very high profit margins. In many cases, short and airy sounds like it's going to be cheaper."

"Gene has been great at the care and feeding of the myth," says Ron Javers, editor of Philadelphia magazine. Javers sees the Inquirer as "an extremely good newspaper," but says its business coverage "stinks," its Sunday magazine is "awful ... they'll give us 20 pages of pictures on Afghanistan" and the daily lifestyle section "is really laughable. It's just not with it."

Fred Voigt, head of a civic watchdog group, says the Inquirer has "a tendency to emphasize projects, the big takeouts, the mega-turds," over routine coverage.

"I've never thought they're anywhere near as good at the local level as at the national level," says Republican Councilman Thacher Longstreth, a 35-year veteran of city politics.

The paper still takes strong editorial stands. When the Inquirer's editorial page editor said in a column that the Roman Catholic Church is anti-democratic and "quite literally an un-American institution," Philadelphia Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua accused him of trying "to create a climate of fear by misrepresentation and innuendo."

Nor does it shy away from controversial stories: On Martin Luther King Day last January, the Inquirer reported that white voters increasingly view the city's Democratic Party as a "black party." Mayor Wilson Goode denounced the story as racist.

Many inner-city black readers favor the tabloid Daily News, while the Inquirer is increasingly focused on suburban readers, who account for nearly two-thirds of its 505,000 daily circulation. Chuck Stone, a Daily News senior editor and columnist, says the Inquirer sometimes excels in covering the black community, "but on a constant, continuing basis, there's an invisibility."

Despite the recent cutback, the Inquirer is devoting increasingly scarce resources to publishing nine suburban "Neighbors" sections that feature home sale listings, police blotters and such soft stories as "They Answer the Call to Save Lives," "Music Appreciation, South Jersey Style" and "Girl, 5, Cited for Preventing Home Fire."

If Roberts was worn down by the constant budget warfare, as friends contend, he was also battered by 17 days on the witness stand in a libel suit last spring. Former prosecutor Richard Sprague won a $34 million judgment against the paper over stories dating to the start of Roberts's tenure, and Roberts had to admit to some inaccuracies in the reporting. The paper is appealing the decision.

"He looked awful," Javers says. "He did not hold up well."

To the casual reader, the Inquirer's range seems undiminished. This past Sunday and Monday, for example, the paper offered up staff reports on Indian tribes in Maine, an arsenic poisoning case in North Carolina, a writing workshop in Tennessee, the plight of Cambodian refugees and a sex talk show on London television.

Still, some worry about creeping conservatism. "The staff has been here a long time and they've gotten older and a lot of the piss and vinegar is gone," says Drake, a 24-year veteran. "It's not as crazy as it was before.

"In the heyday, I did an eight-part series on a girl dying of leukemia. The eighth part was 350 inches long. I don't think I'd get an okay on it now."

King, 46, a self-described Roberts "disciple" who had been running the circulation department, says he would not have taken the top job without assurances from Knight-Ridder that it did not plan to dismember the paper.

"My own experience is shaped by watching Gene Roberts convince the managers of the Inquirer to invest in quality journalism," King says. "With the cast of characters that run Knight-Ridder now, there is more of a financial performance orientation. I'm not entirely sure they're wrong about that."

King says the Inquirer "was built by a single-minded visionary" and that he has a more relaxed, collegial style. "We're not going to try to run the Gene Roberts Museum and all be curators," he says.