Vacations have been canceled, deadlines extended, reporters reassigned, stories stockpiled, bags packed, gas masks purchased, staffers placed on 24-hour alert. News executives rush from meeting to meeting, planning more television specials, more magazine covers, more "Crisis in the Gulf" sections.

"The preparations for war are hell," says George Watson, ABC's Washington bureau chief.

But if the imminent prospect of war in the Persian Gulf is straining most news organizations to the limit, it has also brought a new sense of purpose and, not coincidentally, an expanding audience. Network news ratings are up, with more than 4 million additional households tuning in last week, compared with mid-December. C-SPAN's Senate channel was picked up by 240 more cable stations for last week's congressional debate. Newsweek's cover stories on the gulf have pushed up newsstand sales by as much as 50,000 an issue, while Time has seen a 20,000 increase.

The war watch has also returned the media spotlight to the nation's capital, despite warnings by some doomsayers early in the Bush presidency that the city's journalistic prominence had faded for good.

"Washington is again the center of the world's attention," says Timothy Russert, chief of NBC's bureau here. "This is really an historic time. There are very few moments in television history where a news division gets to define itself. The Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, civil rights and the space shuttle have been seismic events. The gulf war will be such an event. All eyes are on television."

The reason, although it sounds somewhat perverse, is that bad news -- recession, scandal, violence -- is good for the news business. "Crises cause people to watch more, listen more, read more news," says Watson. "Since August, the increase in Washington coverage has been tremendous. This is where the president is, this is where the Pentagon is, this is where the State Department is."

In such an environment, nearly everyone wants a piece of the action.

"I have several reporters who are dying to go to Saudi Arabia," says Albert Hunt, the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau chief. "They come into my office and lobby like mad. It's kind of like the guy in a basketball game, with the game tied in the last seconds, who wants the ball. This is what a great reporter wants."

Still, Hunt says, "I don't think that suggests people are dying for war or are insensitive to the costs of war. In the past couple of days, there's been more sobriety, a realization that this thing is real."

CBS, NBC and ABC, each of which has about 75 people in the region, have each averaged five gulf stories a night on their evening newscasts. "I think this is the biggest story in history for the networks," says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "In terms of the intensity of coverage, this is double the coverage of the Panama invasion. It's more than double the coverage of a presidential campaign. George Bush is being forced to be a television president. ... In a war-and-peace story the president makes news."

The networks, whose audience share has been dwindling in recent years, are reaping the benefits. "NBC Nightly News" last week registered its highest ratings in two years, while an ABC special on the gulf Monday was the highest-rated news special since 1978.

Network officials are weighing the possibility of "wall-to-wall" coverage, at least in the first few days of a war. "If there is real shooting, I think all the networks will go to extended coverage, whether it's 12 hours or 18 hours or 24 hours," says Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News." Current plans are for anchors Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to remain in New York.

With so much potential air time to fill, the networks have been stockpiling retired military brass and other experts. At NBC, consultants include a former head of the National Security Agency, a former ambassador to Iraq and a colonel from the U.S. War College.

"There are so many moving parts," says CBS News spokesman Tom Goodman. "There are hundreds of producers and correspondents and technicians and drivers. It's planning upon planning, strategy upon strategy, meetings upon meetings. What we're doing is very similar to what the Pentagon is doing, but on a totally different level. The adrenaline just keeps you going."

At Cable News Network, which often seems to be the official conduit for gulf diplomacy, last week's ratings were up 43 percent over December's. The network has been airing two gulf specials a day.

If war comes, says Ed Turner, CNN's vice president for news, "there will just be this one story. Ninety-five percent of our air time will be filled around the clock with the gulf. The other networks are in the entertainment business, and at some point they have to return to normal programming. We just do one thing."

Network officials caution that combat footage may not be available for the first day or two, in part because of delays in transporting videotape from the front lines to satellite links in Riyadh or Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. News executives are also concerned that new Pentagon rules for combat coverage could delay transmission of controversial material.

Under the rules, which many news organizations have protested as a form of censorship, Pentagon officials must conduct advance "security reviews" of all stories, and reporters in the gulf may be required to have military escorts.

News organizations are also worried that normal telecommunications systems could be jammed by high-tech weaponry, or seized by local governments, leaving reporters unable to phone home or file stories with their laptop computers. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday have leased a portable satellite communications system in Saudi Arabia as a backup in case the local telephone system is rendered inoperable.

Many newspapers are throwing out the old rules. USA Today has reporters in Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia -- all countries it does not generally cover full time -- and plans an unprecedented Saturday edition if war erupts on a Friday. With its relatively late deadlines, the paper is also ready to cover an outbreak of hostilities as late as 3 a.m.

"We've extended people's shifts so we're basically a 24-hour operation," says USA Today Editor Peter Prichard. "I think the whole country is transfixed by this."

Newsweek has run Persian Gulf covers 10 times in the past 25 weeks, including "Baghdad's Bully," "Drawing the Line," "Women Warriors," "Should We Fight?," "Saddam's End Game" and "The Path to War." Three gulf covers were among the top seven sellers of 1990.

"Newsstand sales, which are the quickest barometer of reader interest -- our own Nielsen ratings, if you will -- were sharply up in the second half of last year," says Executive Editor Stephen Smith. "The only thing you can possibly attribute that to is tensions in the gulf."

But Smith notes that advertising remains in a recessionary nose dive. "There's a widespread misconception among non-journalists that because you're selling a lot of newspapers or magazines, suddenly the cash is rolling in," he says.

The confrontation with Iraq is so far-ranging that reporters who cover Capitol Hill, diplomacy, politics, the economy, the oil industry, the environment, defense contracting and the stock market have all been drawn in.

"This story is so big you couldn't find someone here who hasn't worked on it," says Jonathan Wolman, head of the Associated Press's Washington bureau.

Some editors worry about over-saturation. "You try to make sure it doesn't so dominate your life that you don't cover other things you should be covering," Hunt says. "There are incredible stories going on in the economy, in financial institutions. ... We probably have a third of the bureau involved in this endeavor. If war breaks out, we're going to send people to Saudi Arabia that ordinarily would be covering something else."

All this is a far cry from early 1989, when network bureau chiefs spoke of a constant battle to get Washington stories on the air. Bush was a nonconfrontational president who made little news at home while the world focused on upheaval in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. David Brinkley complained that "this year's Washington news sounds exactly like last year's Washington news."

"That changed on August 2," the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, Russert says.

Now that Bush's Jan. 15 deadline has arrived, a bellicose tone has crept into some of the coverage. "TIME'S UP -- Saddam's Deadline for Doom," roared yesterday's New York Post, with a cover photo of an hourglass.

"The whole country, including the press corps, is kind of with the president. ... We're Americans," CBS News's Lesley Stahl said on the air Monday night.

To some critics, however, the news coverage has been far too skeptical. On the House floor yesterday, Melton Hancock (R-Mo.) accused the national media of trying "to undermine public support for the president. Their morbid obsession with the certain tragedy of war is designed to do nothing less than give aid and comfort to our enemies by unnerving the American people. ... This behavior is a far cry from the days of World War II, when the news media supported our armed forces. ...

"Whose side are they on?"

In most newsrooms, the frenzy of plotting various war scenarios has given way to a more somber mood.

"It's beginning to place an emotional strain on people," says ABC's Watson. "There's a sort of nervous anticipation that something's about to happen. We're like the soldiers in the Persian Gulf in feeling that if there's going to be a war, let's go ahead and get on with it."