Few newspapers have so deeply etched their imprint on a major city as has the Los Angeles Times. For decades the Times and its publishers, the Chandler family, have dominated the cultural, economic and political life of this desert metropolis. The Times has been Los Angeles' most powerful voice and, some still say, its true master.

Now that domination is being challenged. The Times' once weak and wobbly competitor, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, has embarked on a long-term campaign to dethrone the powerful Times as southern California's prevailing newspaper, an effort openly scoffed at by executives in the block-long concrete monolith of Times Mirror Square.

The afternoon Herald, two years ago a listless, dying newspaper, is moving to a format directed at a new generation of television watchers and radio listeners, people as interested in escape as information. The Herald's editors and its publishers, the Hearst Corp., believe the morning Times has grown too bulky and too dull, overstuffed with often irrelevant detail.

"People aren't training that many dogs, they don't keep that many parakeets," says Wil Hearst, a director of the Hearst Corp. "They don't need a phone book propped on their doorstep every morning."

Two years ago the Herald hired Jim Bellows, a former editor at the Times, the New York Herald Tribune and the Washington Star, to lead the fight against the entrenched competition. Today, Bellows admits the Herald is still lagging far behind the Times, which holds a 3-to-1 edge in circulation and a 10-to-1 advantage in advertising linage.

"Right now it's David versus Goliath, but we're getting more flesh on our bones," said Bellows, who waged similar fights against dominant newspapers in both New York and Washington, "We're moving to a younger audience, a woman-oriented audience, You've got a lot of people coming and growing up here, people the Times doesn't reach."

Bellows has crammed the pages of the thin Herald with gissipy items about media personalities (including the mighty Chandler), given a free rein to controversy-seeking columnists and bolstered coverage of the arts and local news. The paper, once predictably right wing, now takes an enigmatic, somewhat populist editorial line, favoring such measures as Proposition 13 (opposed by the Times) while definding gay and women's rights.

The Herald, reportedly spending an estimated $1 million on modernization of its decaying physical plant, has virtually replaced its old editorial staff with young, vibrant, largely inexperienced reporters, most of them in their 20s. Besides the page two rumor mill column, the paper has added a front page interview and a daily news focus, taken either from a major eastern newspaper or supplied by a guest writer such as feminist leader Betty Friedan.

The Herald today is a flashy, even fickle newspaper, with a flair for hot-blooded headlines, lurid murders and large pictures. It is sometimes informative and seeks always to be entertaining.

This journalistic approach is anathema to the gray-suited executive at Times. Bill Thomas, Bwllows' counterpart at the big paper, firmly lieves the public prefers the Times' ofteh long-winded but highly informative approach to the news, its reasoned editorials and dispassionate reportorial style.

"The difference between them and us is the their philosophy is that all people want is to be entertained, thrilled and shocked," Thomas said sharply. "Our philosophy is the opposite -- we think they want to be fully informed or else we can all watch the tube anyway. The most successful papers are those which fully inform. The flash in the pan doesn't work."

Thomas insists the Times' real competition comes not from the upstart Herald but from Los Angeles' television stations, all- news radio and several highly successful local newspapers like the suburban Valley News, the Santa Ana Register and the Santa Monica Evening Outlook.

"There's no question Jim's improved the paper. It was sad before and now it's bright and readable," Thomas said in the plush office within the suite of publisher Otis Chandler. "But I'm sad to say I'm not concerned about the Herald and I don't know anyone here who is."

Bellows maintains that, beneath the outward calm, Thomas and others at the Times are really worried sick about the Herald's editorial advance.

"They're damned upset about having another paper in town despite what they tell you," Bellows said while looking over the wire service ticker tape spread on his thin office carpet. "They know we've beaten them on a lot of stories. Don't forget they've been running a juggernaut over there for years. They consider this town their province."

One of the big stories the Times booted says Bellows, was the killing earlier this year of Eulia Love, a black woman, by two Los Angeles police officers. The Times played the Love shooting, which followed an argument over an unpaid $69 uitlity bill, the next day in one paragraph in a page two news summary.

Herald editors jumped on the Love story and covered it as big front-page news. They stressed in their stories that the woman carried with her only an 11-inch boning knife, and focused on the fire power of the two officers, who shot Love eight times. The case quickly became a cause celebre in the Los Angeles' black and libeal communities, sparking a well-publicized investigation into the killing by the Los Angeles Police Commission. The story didn't make the Times' front page until three months after the shooting.

The Times' coverage of the Love case, Bellows maintains, is a natural byproduct of the paper's close ties to the police and the publisher Otis Chandler's sentiments, stated on television last year that minorities didn't read the Times because it's "not their kink of newspaper."

Times managing editor George Cotliar hotly denies the paper is against coverage of minorities or has an ingrown desire to protect the police department. While admitting his staff was slow to move on the Love story, Cotliar insists the Times covers Los Angeles' minority communities far more extensively and accurately than does the Herald.

"Sure, we screwed up, so does everyone every once in a while," Cotliar siad. "I get a kick out of them finding fault with us all the time. They would do better to look at their own product. I think there's jealousy because we're more successful and more well respected in the newspaper business."

Some particularly within the Los Angeles Police Department, have found the Herald's coverage of the Love case and other law enforcement issue overblown and sensationalistic. "Their treatment of the department is totally unfair and biased," said Commander Bill Booth of the LAPD. "This condition doesn't exist with any other newspaper in this city. I can't understand why they indulge in so much unbalanced and distorted reporting."

The rivalry between the two newspapers has been sharpened in recent months by revelations in local media that the Time has refused to interview visiting personalities unless they promise not to speak to the Herald. This policy of exclusivity, described by Belows as "muffling," has extended to such big names as O. J. Simpson, Gloria Vanderbilt and Diane von Furstenburg, according to Herald fashion editor Gwen Jones.

With the Times' overwhelming advantage in circulation and advertising, some prominent publicists explain they have little choice but to go along with the precondtion of the more powerful paper. Times editors make no excuses about their practices and insist all the hoopla is nothing more than another of Jim Bellows' vain attempts to promote the Herald.

"It's his time-honored technique," editor Thomas said with a whimsical smile. "He likes to attract attention. It's the big guy versus the little guy thing and frankly I think its a big put-on. I feel sorry for him if he really believes it."

Many observers of the Los Angeles newspaper scene feel it is still far too early to know whether the Herald's new style has cut into the Times' long lead. Circulation figures have held steady over the last year for both papers despite price increases.

Herald publisher Francis Dale maintains his paper's opportunity lies in the vast untapped market that Los Angeles represents for daily metropolitan newspapers. Currently, only 40 percent of households in the Los Angeles-Orange County area take a metropolitan daily, a figure at least 20 percentage points below the circulation penetration in such places as Detroit, Houston and Washington.

Much of this unspoken-for audience, Dale believes, is made up of women and young professioanls. Before Bellows' arrival, the Herald had been losing an average of 35,000 subscribers for 10 straight years. Its readership was blue-collar, aging and lacked a disposable income attractive to advertisers. Today the Herald has checked its circulation decline and increased its appeal to new constituencies, experiencing a nearly 50 percent jump in female readers over the last two years.

But the paper still faces a forbidding array of problems. Between 1967 and 1977, the Herald experienced some of the bitterest labor strife in newspaper history, and the fallout contributed mightily to the paper's precipitous decline. Now journalists and other workers at the Hearst-owned paper, complaining about wages sometimes half those earned by Times counterparts, talk openly about a strike in March.

"Tempers are running high," said investigative reporter Scott Paltrow, editorial shop steward for the News Media and Graphic Communications Union."You have people like Bellows making a lot of money [his salary is estimated at over $100,000 a year] while everyone else is way below normal scale. There's a serious chance of a strike and it would have strong support."

A walkout by workers now, editorial page editor Tom Plate said flatly, "could well kill this paper." At the very least, Hearst Corp. officials fear, a strike now would erase most of the progress made over the past two years in resuscitating the Herald.

Some of those most concerned about a strike or a shutdown at the Herald are reporters at the Los Angeles Times. While no strike threatens the rich, nonunion paper, some there say that the relative lack of competition has at times resulted in a product both lazy and unispired, tendencies a Herald decline could accentuate.

"It's the whole atmosphere. For years the Herald wasn't much competition and still really isn't," recalls one staffer who recently moved to a major East Coast paper. "Back here [in the East] everyone worries about what New York or Washington people are doing. Out there you don't have to worry about it. You can always go sailing. It's like working on a colonial enterprise."

Without a strong Herald, one Times reporter said, he and his co-workers would be tempted to take it easy within the "velvet cofin," as the Times is sometimes caled in Los Angeles journalism circles.

"It's usually like the opposite of creative tension here," the reporter said. "It's benign neglect. You can hide, disappear and die and still get a pay-check. No one's challenging you, no one's on your back. I hope the Herald keeps rolling along, for God's sakes, because there's no substitute in this business for competition."