Just over a year ago, Mayor Marion Barry's relationship with the press was about as amicable as a cat fight. He went through three different chief spokesmen in 1980, demoting one when stories the mayor didn't like about his chauffeur-driven city car appeared.

But things have changed. The Barry administration is older, and believes itself wiser when it comes to getting its message out. There seem to be two overriding principles to Barry's new approach: Speak to the press as seldom as possible, and use your own outlet -- if you have one -- as much as possible.

Barry's recent reluctance to comment on anything that might be embarrassing or politically damaging is well documented. Is infant mortality up? Let Department of Human Services Chief James E. Buford take the heat. High-level appointees under investigation for bribery? City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers will handle it.

The other half of the new Barry strategy is to circumvent the commercial media to the extent possible. For an illustration, look toward the city's newest newspaper, City Hall New Times. Publisher: Marion Barry.

Regulars at the District Building, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and other municipal buildings might remember City Hall New Times as a tabloid that rested in stacks near the door, free to anyone who wanted to pick one up and read the city government's view of how well it was doing.

The paper fell victim 15 months ago to the city's budget crisis. It was unseemly, the administration decided, to spend money on a newspaper while city services were being reduced and employes being laid off.

But the budget crisis is now over, the mayor has declared. At least it's over enough for the city's newspaper to be back.

Instead of the previous distribution method of just leaving stacks of papers at government buildings, the city now makes free copies of the monthly newspaper available at all Giant, Safeway, Peoples Drug and Drug Fair stores in the District.

Page 3 of the newspaper, which is put out by the city's Office of Communications, is reserved for a personal message from The Publisher. In the paper's recent first edition, Barry took the occasion to personally present the 5 percent increase in salary he approved for nonunion city workers. He also presented the workers with the 2 percent "employe appreciation bonus" he approved, reminding them that this magnanimity was above and beyond his call of duty in light of the city's financial problems.

Barry praised his own administration across the board, citing what he said was improvement in housing, war on crime, garbage collection, response to the budget crisis, you name it.

"Making all of these tangible accomplishments would be tough under any circumstances in urban America -- but particularly so in our times of unprecedented staff and budgetary cutbacks," Barry wrote modestly. Later in the piece, he added, "Add it up. We are producing results, not rhetoric."

The tone of the city's newest publication is uniformly rosy about the Barry team's efforts, with the exception of a man-on-the-street interview feature in which a few residents expressed mild displeasure at this or that. One learns that a "citizen-city partnership" is working in the fight against crime. Millions are being saved by the government in energy conservation. Some public housing tenants are being allowed to buy their units. The new convention center is being built.

City Hall New Times is costing $36,000 a year, according to Ed Meyers, who heads the Office of Communications and acts as Barry's current chief spokesman.

Meyers acknowledges that the newspaper is a way for the Barry administration to get its own view of events to the citizens of the District. In its previous incarnation, the paper was targeted more for city government workers. They are still expected to be New Times' mainstay readers, but Meyers noted that many of the features in the current issue are for consumption by the general public.

"If we get the facts out, I think the facts will speak for themselves," Meyers said. "We think that if you read down the items, the entire record is a good one. From a day-to-day standpoint, you don't often get the entire picture."

Meyers said the paper is also designed to upgrade the image of the District government and its employes. "There is a long-term skepticism about the ability of the D.C. government to do the job," he said. "We've had a very low reputation, over time."

"The employes in particular have had a hard time over the years," Meyers said. "They've been called 'bungling' for as long as I can remember."

Bungling? Where have we heard that before? Wasn't it Marion Barry who campaigned in 1978 against the "bumbling and bungling" of the bureaucracy under his predecessor?

Ah, how things change in a matter of a few years, from campaign to campaign.