JOHANNESBURG

What is a more stubborn challenge than finding a practical way to nourish and sustain a vigorous South African press, both black and white?

Millions of words have been written about these journalists, so crudely assaulted and locked inside South Africa. Many Western newspaper poo-bahs implore these reporters to continue their fierce fight against the government's press restrictions. Others counsel pulling out -- a sanction against communications with the outside world. Neither suggestion is sufficient.

The first exhortation gives comfort to the local press. But press freedom verbiage is not enough. It's not enough because vigorous journalism is on the verge of flickering out.

I suggest a couple of other save-the-South-African-press approaches. They grow out of a visit with scores of newspaper and television people in both the commercial "straight" press and the remarkably brave alternative press ("emerging" press is their preferred term).

The trip -- and the visa -- came as a result of an invitation to attend the Centennial Conference on "Conflict and the Press," sponsored by The Johannesburg Star, the country's largest newspaper. More than 100 journalists from the United States and several other countries showed up. From the host country, the spectrum ran from the government's chief censor to angry black journalists. The conference was a powerful updater on the conditions under which local and foreign journalists operate today in this passionately unhappy nation.

Worth the price of admission was watching and listening to Stoffel Botha, government press czar, impassively talking about the "cordial relations" between the media and the government and explaining why Zewlakhe Sisulu, the New Nation editor, was thrown in jail about 250 days ago without being charged. Sisulu has become a world symbol of press repression in South Africa.

"He is not in jail because he is a journalist," said Botha, "but because it is our responsibility to keep law and order in this country. He must be in jail, because he is not conducive to the state of affairs we want at this time." That was his message, cool, clear and assertive -- vintage McCarthy sans the five o'clock shadow.

Under the new prepublication censorship decree, Sisulu's game little weekly tabloid was the first to be served a formal warning. No one will be surprised if the Nation, and then South, another new alternative weekly in Cape Town, are soon shut down by the government.

These two newspapers are among the half dozen new publications in South Africa that are risking their very existence by regularly reporting on the repression, censorship, detention and strikes and the horrors and violence of daily life in the squatter settlements.

Sufficient talent to run these alternative papers is scare, because many young journalists have left the country or gone to work for the foreign press. These papers are therefore put out by spirited but largely untrained writers and managers. They operate on hand-to-mouth funding. Advertising is skimpy and unpredictable. Lawyers sit at every editor's elbow.

These publications are all in the same fix. Each is biracially or black-owned, each desperately needs more training in management, bookkeeping, editing and writing skills. The learning must come in short, intensive doses, because these papers are too short-handed for a staffer to enjoy the luxury of a fellowship like the Nieman at Harvard.

In addition to in-house training efforts, I propose four or five workshops a year, each in one of the most needed skills, inside the country and/or in the Front Line states. Preferably, these workshops would be open to all races. The African-American Institute already has been deeply involved in training efforts in South Africa, and the Center for Foreign Journalists, too, has seen the effectiveness of similar workshops with hundred of journalists from Third World countries. The cost should be shared by local newspaper organizations and businesses.

Another obvious necessity is more money. Isn't the most accepted, honorable and practical way to increase income through increased advertising? More South African, U.S., English and other multinational corporation owners should be encouraged to place 6- to 12-month advertising schedules in the alternative press, as some do in commercial newspapers. This investment would enhance the life of the black press and win the good will of future readers for their businesses -- all for a far lower rate than major newspapers charge.

What's so sad today is that South Africans know almost as little as outsiders do about the high drama taking place outside their own little orbits in their own vast country. The alternative press does not want to quit, but it will if it doesn't find immediate support.

Businessmen and serious journalists, wherever you are -- consider this a king-size challenge.

The writer, former editor of The Boston Globe, is president of the Center for Foreign Journalists in Reston.