These are hard times for The Alexandria Gazette, which claims to be America's oldest daily newspaper. After almost 200 years of reporting everything from neighborhood Civil War battles to municipal graft to outhouse vandalism, the paper is faltering.

"We're having trouble," says Gazette editor and publisher Edward Neilan, who acknowledges that the paper has lost money for almost a decade. "All I can say about 1981 is I'm glad it's over with."

Still, The Gazette, the good gray lady of Alexandria, has hung on. Many of the13,000 subscribers that remain have taken the paper for more than half a century, scanning its pages faithfully for the milestones of small town life--news of births, marriages and ribbon cuttings. And deaths--the obituary pages have always been the paper's best-read section, according to managing editor Steve Bates. "We may be a little dull and a little stodgy, but we are the paper of record," he says.

"It's always been the Alexandria paper," says City Council member James Moran. "And Alexandria is steeped in tradition. One hundred years ago they may have been reporting that the Lions Club met and decided whether to have coffee or tea, and some of that function hasn't changed."

"It would really be missed," says Mayor Charles Beatley. "I've been racking my brain to come up with a way to be sure we don't lose it."

In 1981, at a time when newspaper analysts say most suburban newspapers are thriving, The Gazette stumbled. Circulation, declining for three years, dwindled further; advertising, after a brief upswing in 1980, fell again. The paper competed with diminishing success for regional advertising with the now-daily Journal newspapers, and fought for the city's retail advertising with the lively Alexandria Port Packet, a small paper, largely given away, usually chock-full of boutique ads and real estate listings.

"The Packet gives The Gazette fits," says state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria. He says The Gazette has lost prominence in the last five years, partly as a result of frequent changes in its ownership and its editorial direction.

Last year employe paychecks were delayed, sometimes for weeks. Workers discovered that paycheck deductions for their insurance were being diverted to pay other newspaper bills. By late July, the insurance payments were three months behind, and employes learned that their insurance claims were being put on hold until the paper's payments were up to date.

Angered employes hired a lawyer to represent them and filed a grievance with the state Department of Labor and Industry, arguing that The Gazette was violating Virginia law by withholding their paychecks. Investigators agreed and, in November, Neilan promised that "internal improvements" soon would enable the paper to meet its payrolls on time.

Some employes began referring to the whole matter as "Neilangate," a reference to the beleaguered publisher. Buttons inscribed "The check is in the mail," began appearing on workers' lapels.

Since Christmas, things have improved. The most recent paycheck, scheduled to arrive Christmas Eve, arrived a day early and the insurance payments are current. Threatened reductions in staff never took place, but all of the paper's 100 workers have taken a 7 percent pay cut. Still the paper has little money to spare. Staffers were recently informed that that The Gazette will not pay their travel expenses to a journalism banquet in Richmond, where several Gazette writers have been nominated for awards.

None of this has done much to suppress rumors that The Gazette may not survive. "People come up to me and ask whether the paper is going to fold," says Lisa McGrady, a rookie reporter who decided to bail out and has accepted a staff job in the state Senate. "We get calls about it the paper's future all the time," says managing editor Bates.

Neilan, a former Asia correspondent for the Copley newspaper chain, denies that The Gazette is in danger of going under, or that there are plans to unload it. "We're not going to sell. The paper is not going to close. We're going to do better."

Newspaper analyst Bruce Thorp says The Gazette's problems are similar to those of many small urban newspapers. These papers face competition on two fronts: first, from regional suburban papers, which can offer advertisers wider coverage; and secondly from free "shoppers," or advertising supplements that promise wider circulation than papers like the Gazette.

Although The Gazette was owned by two or three Alexandria families for most of its existence, it has been traded several times in the last two decades. Neilan and a group of Asian investors bought it from a South Carolina group in the late '70s. Shortly after the purchase, The Gazette expanded, adding an entertainment section to the Alexandria paper, three suburban weeklies and four military newspapers. Neilan says he and the paper's major shareholder, Sing Tao Newspapers Ltd. of Hong Kong, are convinced the Gazette can be a money maker. He answers critics of the expansion by saying that it is the military papers--for the Pentagon, Fort Belvoir, Bolling Air Force Base and Walter Reed Army Medical Center--that are keeping The Gazette afloat.

Neilan blames The Gazette's problems on the recession. "The economy has hurt us. We'll get a new hairdresser ad account but then the hairdresser goes out of business." Neilan describes The Gazette's market penetration as "horrendous," by which he means that The Washington Post and until recently, The Washington Star, cut into its readership and ad revenues.

Another problem is distribution, according to employes and disgruntled subscribers. Despite an army of 350 carriers, workers say circulation is a nightmare. "It's bad," says reporter McGrady.

While steady paychecks have bolstered employe morale, doubt about the paper's future remains. Employes who signed the labor grievance say The Gazette's internal management is a disaster. Some fault what they describe as Neilan's aloof management style and note that he still drives a company-leased Cadillac. "Neilan became this little island unto himself," says assistant sports editor Rick Cherner. "We can all understand business problems. We'd have been pulling for him. But he made us the enemy, and so he became our enemy."

Not so, says Neilan. "Oh, sure, there were people who wanted me to get up on a counter and make a speech like Spencer Tracy when this whole thing began," he says. "If I had to do it over again, I think I might try to meet with each employe individually," he concedes.

"I want to keep the paper going. I've asked people to bear with me," says Neilan. "Things are going to get better."