Last month Andy Gardiner was covering local sports for the Burlington Free Press, a Vermont daily with a circulation of 51,000. Next month his byline will start appearing in a newspaper that will make its debut here and in Baltimore Sept. 15 and aims to be selling more than a million copies a day nationwide by the end of next year.

The paper, USA Today, is taking shape across the river in a sleek Rosslyn high-rise, where Gardiner and most of a staff of 400 have gathered to put out the nation's first general-interest daily. The venture, brainchild of the Gannett publishing empire, has been judged extremely iffy by Wall Street and media analysts, yet staffers who have signed on for the launching say they are too excited to pay much attention to such precarious projections.

"Win, lose or draw, this is a pretty unique opportunity," says Gardiner, 31, who gladly traded in his seven-year sports-writing career at the Gannett-owned Burlington paper to be a part of the national journalism scene.

And in an era when several big dailies have either died or are floundering, the chance to come to Washington and start a new newspaper -- a coast-to-coast one at that -- was just too good to pass up.

"Just being a part of this is a real career move for me," says Michael Hurd, 33, who has also joined USA Today's sports staff after a little less than three years' experience at non-Gannett papers in Houston and Austin.

To minimize start-up costs, most of the new paper's staff is on loan from other Gannett (pronounced guh-NET) publishing or broadcasting properties, which include 88 dailies, 32 nondailies, seven television stations and 13 radio stations. Most employes were eager to sign on for this new project.

Out of more than 170 Gannett employes initially invited to join the newsroom operations, for example, only 32 declined, according to John J. Curley, the paper's editor. Persons hired from the outside, like Hurd, have boosted the news staff to about 238, including a few in bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh.

Since there will be no local staff and scant attention paid to community -- as opposed to government -- news, the arrival of USA Today does not mean the Washington area is getting another local paper. It has, however, created new jobs here in the publishing industry, and provided a windfall for some area landlords.

Employes who have been borrowed from Gannett's more modest publishing ventures are being given $125 a week in "walk-around" money to help cushion the economic shock of life in the Washington area. The company also is picking up the lodging tab through the end of the year for these employes, housing most in efficiencies and one-bedroom apartments at the River Place complex next door to the Rosslyn office building.

USA Today could turn out to be a paper with few tomorrows, but for the moment such dark thoughts are lost amid the flurry of construction, orientations, prototype preparations, test runs and computer classes that have kept the Rosslyn crew in a state of controlled chaos for the last several weeks. And, since the staff is so new -- to Washington, to the paper and to each other -- name tags have been a necessity, even the one worn by Al Neuharth, Gannett's flamboyant chairman and president.

These days the 58-year-old Neuharth is spending less time at Gannett headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., and more time at the USA Today offices, where he is both realistic and upbeat about the new paper's chances for success.

"USA Today is either going to make it or not make it as an extra buy," he argues, adding that extensive research has convinced him and his company that "people are pretty damned hungry for more news and information." He sees Gannett, with its far-flung media and satellite transmission operations, as uniquely suited to try to provide it.

Some media analysts have questioned the financial feasibility of such a national paper, wondering whether it was founded largely as Gannett's and Neuharth's bid for more visibility and power. Neuharth, however, says starting the paper was "not a glandular decision," but a business one based on extensive research.

Unlike the Wall Street Journal, which circulates nationally but is produced for a business audience, or the New York Times, which prints a national edition in three other cities, USA Today will be targeted for two very narrow readership groups. Gannett hopes it will be the extra paper for Americans traveling away from home and for people who may have moved into a new area but are still interested in what's going on where they used to live.

For this reason, the four-section, full-color, 40-page paper, selling for 25 cents, will go heavy on sports, business news, weather and life-style trends. There will be complete sports box score coverage, including final results from West Coast teams, a full page of weather graphics and a special two-page collection of news items from each of the 50 states. Most of the articles will be short blurbs, although major stories will average about 500 words and special "cover stories" will be allowed to run 800 to 1,200.

"We'll be more mainstream on our cover stories," says editor Curley, 43. For sports, however, "we'll go for the kind of detailed information you can't get anywhere else."

Projects editor John Walter, 35, talks of giving readers "something that is relevant for their quarter" and he says the paper's main stories will be hard-news oriented, "written off of events."

After the first edition goes on sale Sept. 15 in five states around the Washington area, the paper will expand to the Atlanta area the next week and to Minneapolis the week after.

By next April, if all goes well, USA Today should be available Monday through Friday at newstands, vending machines, airports and convenience stores in 15 major metropolitan regions. The paper will be designed and produced in the Washington area and then transmitted by satellite to Gannett printing plants around the country.

Neuharth refuses to disclose what Gannett has spent to get the paper to this point or what it is prepared to commit in the future, preserving, he says, the company's flexibility "to shut it down or take it to the moon." But it has been estimated that the paper will cost the company $20 million this year and $35 million the next. He does say, however, that if only 4 percent of the 61 million people who now buy a daily paper decide to buy USA Today, the paper will be on sound financial footing.

Gannett, whose newspaper holdings are largely concentrated in local monopolies in small to mid-sized cities, has a reputation for being "good on marketing and short on journalism," according to one of its employes. The chain cleared an estimated $334 million in profits before taxes in 1981, and success in the national news and advertising arena would be its greatest marketing coup yet.

Still, Wall Street watchers are skeptical, pointing out that just the announcement of the USA Today venture late last year caused Gannett's stock to fall, though it has rallied in more recent months.

"The outlook is pretty iffy," says newspaper analyst John Morton. He says there is no danger of Gannett taking a severe financial beating, even if USA Today is an absolute flop, but he says the venture could affect the company's long tradition of earnings growth -- "and that makes investors nervous."

Morton says the project does give Gannett a chance to tap into the lucrative satellite technology. And, should the paper "turn out to be a rousing success," he can envision a time 10 or 15 years in the future when USA Today would become the "wrap-around," or front section, for Gannett-owned local papers.

But he discounts the studies Gannett cites to indicate there is an audience for a national, general-interest daily: "Marketing studies aren't always infallible -- they led to now defunct night editions of the New York Daily News."

Media critic Ben Bagdikian has his doubts, too. He says a national paper could succeed only with a long-term commitment to serious, quality journalism, and he doesn't think Gannett is up to it.Further, he complains that the new paper will be ignoring local news in the face of studies he says show that more local news is what readers want most.

But those who have jumped aboard the company's newest project, especially employes brought to town from other Gannett publications, are understandably more optimistic. They agree with Neuharth that a general-interest daily has never been tried before and that Gannett may well be the publisher to pull it off.

Of course, for members of the Gannett "family," the risks of taking the national newspaper gamble are slight. If it doesn't work out, they will have their old or comparable jobs waiting for them.

"What more can you ask?" says Nancy Monaghan, who was city editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle until she signed on as an assistant national editor for USA Today. Monaghan, 37, says she was eager for the experience of starting a national newspaper from the ground up.

"They've certainly made it convenient for everybody," she says enthusiastically. "The company brings you to town, you have a place to live and the phone is there. All we have to worry about is making this paper go."