AT THE AGE of 26, I began my third and, as it has turned out, the last job which I have held in my life. Since then I have free-lanced, a fancy description of irregular employment. But in the days of which I tell I was shown to my new office. The room was large and august. Tall windows looked out over the Thames: upstream was Parliament, downstream was the Tower. A carpet of oriental design was on the floor.

One wall was taken up by a large fireplace, in which a coal fire burned merrily in the winter. It was usually lit before I arrived, but anyhow I was not supposed to touch it. If it needed to be stoked I summoned a lad to do it. Afternoon tea was brought to me on a tray by waitresses in pretty uniforms. If I was kept late at the office, I dined in what was called Private House. What was I doing to deserve such conditions?

I had of course joined The Times of London as a leader writer (editorials are known in Britain as leaders). They were almost the last days of its greatness. Since then it has reeled under blow after blow -- many of them, alas, self-inflicted -- until it was just bought by Rupert Murdoch. That The Thunderer, as it was once known, should be brought so low.

What I had not joined was the media.I do not know whether that term then existed in America. It certainly had not penetrated to The Times and, if it had done so, it would have been rejected as a vulgar coinage. The gentlemanliness of my surroundings, even when I was so young and raw an apprentice, reflected the newspaper. It was not less an institution than the House of Lords or the Church of England, of both of which it was a buttress, and it even regarded the monarchy as not much above it in importance and authority.

One of my fellow leader writers was one of the country's genealogical experts, versed in heraldry and chivalry. In order to take advantage of his knowledge in preparing the coronation of Elizabeth II, the College of Heralds appointed him Arundel Herald Extraordinary for the occasion. He was therefore in the procession in Westminster Abbey.That was where The Times correspondent should be: in the procession with the queen.

The Times in fact had three men in the Abbey -- I was one of them -- when every other newspaper had only one. When we returned to the office to write our stories, there was the senior of us still in his tabard, his herald's baton on the desk by a newfangled thing called a typewriter. That is what I expect a newspaper to be; I have not known one like it since.

Some of my criticisms of today's newspapers may seem to stem from this comparison. But although that may explain them, it does not therefore invalidate them. The Times is no longer the greatest newspaper in the world. That title has passed across the Atlantic, if indeed any newspaper now earns it. I believe that the deterioration of The Times began when I was on its staff, and that it began in the dismissal of one editor and his replacement by another.

The decline of The Times as a commercial enterprise may have been due to economic circumstances, and to some very maladroit handling of them by its recent proprietors. Other good newspapers -- The Daily Telegraph and, however precariously, The Manchester Guardian -- have survived better. But the deterioration of The Times as a newspaper began before its precipitous decline as a business. I would even argue that the deterioration of its character accelerated the decline of its fortunes.

When I joined The Times it was still produced for those who ruled the empire overseas, kept foreigners in order abroad, governed the country at home and effortlessly and ineffably led what was still called Society. The Times made quite sure that I knew my place and my function. Although I had been taken on as a leader writer, for six months I was assigned to more lowly duties. The purpose of this apprenticeship, as it was explained to me, was that I should absorb the atmosphere. This was not difficult to do in the conditions I have described. Nothing which appeared in The Times carried the journalist's name. We were not celebrities. We were The Times.

It might be an unfortunate mishap of nature that The Times should have to reach beyond the Top Class to find those with the peculiar skills to address it in its own language. But The Times would make sure that in some lowly department I would find The Times' tongue. I was given a choice: correspondence or obituaries. I chose the second. There I could contemplate how all in the end come to dust.

The obituary department of The Times was then an institution itself. The life of no member of the gentry -- devoted to foxhunting -- went unrecorded for its value to the community. Since the obituaries in The Times were often transferred with no alteration to the Dictionary of National Biography, we were expected to be accurate in recording every date and incident in a life of varied activity over 80 years. We did not make mistakes in obituaries: They are, after all, a man's monument.

There was of course the unfortunate occasion -- I was not on duty -- when either Lord Bessborough or Lord Desborough died; I cannot now remember which. But I do remember that The Times printed the obituary of the wrong man. Thereby hangs a tale, illustrative of The Times then.

The Times was still trying to maintain the rule that the electric telephone was not a fit instrument. How did one know that the person at the other end was who he said he was? But a concession had been made.If someone did call with information, you asked where he was calling from, made certain in whose number the telephone was listed and then called him back. When the peer whose obituary The Times had wrongly printed called the next day, he pointed out, "This is Lord -- . You published in your pages this morning that news that I have died." He was interrupted by the secretary: "Can you first tell me, sir, where you are speaking from?"

So the reminiscences could continue of one of the last institutions of an age now vanished. The point which seems worth pressing now is that The Times then knew its function: the audience it was addressing and to what purpose. It may seem that there is no more to be said but that the world has changed. But I believe that there is a more general lesson.

The Times then had no large general audience. It was addressed to only small specific audiences. If you were interested in the budget of the Sudan, as several of its readers were, you would find the budget in the pages of The Times. If you were interested in flower shows, no important flower show went unrecorded. If you were interested in chess, every tournament was covered. And if you were interested only in the births, marriages and deaths of members of your class, they were all there as well on the front page.

The first editor whom I served, W. F. Casey, knew this in his bones. He would never have made a great editor, but he had been on The Times most of his life, and he knew the secret of its success. When he was peremptorily dismissed by the Astors, they replaced him with a journalist, Sir William Haley, who was in fact a herald of what we now call the media. He had edited a popular evening newspaper, and had then been director-general of the BBC. He was used to large general audiences and, as he refashioned The Times, he tore out what appealed to small special audiences.

Unable to appeal to a popular audience, The Times found itself with no audience at all. That has been its story in the past quarter of a century as much as its difficulties with the unions.The two other British newpapers I have mentioned, which have survived in so much better shape, have both continued to pay attention to their small audiences. I believe that no quality newspaper can long survive if it does not give that attention, even as it must go in search of the large popular audience which is all that the media know.

A vital repository of circulation exists in those who buy a newspaper because they know that they will be kept informed on anything that happens in their own specialized field of interest. This is what commercial television cannot do. The definition of the media is that they can address only a general audience.But I will just as strongly hold that the character of even a large-circulation newspaper is formed primarily by the attention which it gives to small audiences.

To them the newspaper has to speak with authority, and that authority is then lent to all which the newspaper does. The Times was a superb professional production when I was on it. Even its first editions appeared with remarkably few errors. You cannot afford errors if you are speaking to experts in a field. The rule was clear, as it was then the rule of Reuters also: "Better late than wrong." Copy editors would hold up a story to track down the correct spelling of a small village in Bosnia where an earthquake had occurred. Of course, given the staff, someone usually knew.

Private House, where I dined as a leader writer, was the original house of the king's printer on Printing House Square where The Times was first published at the end of the 18th century. When some years later they tore down Private House to put up a modern block of offices, some of us who had resigned from The Times years before wrote it a letter of protest. "There are times when gentlemen should wear their hearts on their sleeves," we wrote in sadness, and The Times published our letter. It is still hard not to wear my heart on my sleeve when writing about a once so great newspaper.