The latest circulation figures for New York's three major daily newspapers reveal dramatic swings in the always topsy-turvy newspaper world here and raise again the question of whether all three can survive.

A decade ago, some investment analysts were predicting the death of The New York Times from overspending on its product and failing to remember H. L. Mencken's warning that nobody ever went broke underestimating the public's taste.

Now, The Times is the only healthy member of the three, and analysts scratch their heads over the future of The New York Daily News and The New York Post.

While the dramatic reversal tells a lot about the individual papers, New York's general newspaper problems are shared by other urban areas.

The flight from the cities has been the flight of traditional newspaper readers from their old dailies.

Even if a family moves to the suburbs and keeps subscribing to a city paper, the children aren't likely to become subscribers as they grow up, analyst John Morton of John Muir & Co. said. "The children will think of Westchester -- or wherever -- as home."

In New York, as elsewhere, the city newspapers have been hemmed in by successful suburban papers. "The perception that there are only three papers in New York is inaccurate, there are lots of papers," Morton said.

Crucial to the dilemma of the News and Post is advertisers' desire to reach the suburban resident: the appliance-buying, furniture-buying family with children who are going to need new sneakers and jeans season after season. Department stores, groceries and people who place classified advertisements keep newspapers rich and happy, and they are spending their advertising dollars to reach the kind of readers they want.

"The News used to own the suburbs five to 10 years ago," said the man who controls a major department store's advertising budget. "Now, when we look at the News we're a little nervous."

"What causes the jitters is the News' plummeting circulation, losses of the kind of suburban readers at which advertisers aim.

In the last six months, the News has lost 60,000 daily and 80,000 Sunday, which, at 140,000 papers, is more circulation than all but 14 percent of the nation's 1,769 dailies have. In two years, daily circulation has declined about 275,000. A decade ago the News was selling about 2 million papers a day.

Those losses have cost the News its proudly worn title as the nation's largest circulation daily newspaper and allowed The Wall Street Journal to move into first place. More seriously, they threaten the paper's future.

"It takes years to build circulation, you can't let it slip away this fast. This is a real crisis," said one well-informed source. "After a certain point it gets very difficult to halt the slide."

For the short term, rising advertising rates and the declining circulation have produced an improved financial position for the News, which reportedly had shown marginal profits in recent years. (The parent Tribune Co. of Chicago is privately held, so exact earnings and profit figures are not public.)

To some observers, it appears that executives are positioning the News to be sold, but Tribune President Stanton Cook issued the latest of a string of strong denials last week.

Henry Wurzer, executive vice president of the News, said in an interview that despite circulation losses surveys show "the audience vitality is there." Wurzer said production problems, which have hampered delivery to the newsstands (where 80 percent of its copies are sold), have caused some former five-day-a-week readers to skip a day or two.

"We're very encouraged to learn [from surveys] that we haven't lost our reader base, we've just lost the frequency," Wurzer said.

He predicted that an aggressive promotion campaign and the end to production problems would halt the News' circulation losses.

New York City has lost about 600,000 blue-collar jobs over the past decade, and most of the people holding those jobs were News readers. In the Bronx and sections of Brooklyn there are only empty lots where there used to be apartment buildings full of News readers.

New arrivals over the decade generally have been people who don't read newspapers, but even if the News could sell them subscriptions these generally poor people are not the readers advertisers want to reach.

At the same time that the population shift away from the city was eating into the News' readership base, the paper changed its editorial product in recent years in disregard of Mencken's adage.

"They're giving recipes for artichokes and stuffed avocados when their audience thought the old recipes for wonderful things to do with Jello were fine," said one source who wanted to be unidentified.

News planners sought to raise the quality of the paper and attract more affluent readers who would bring in more advertising dollars.

In a recent Doonesbury cartoon, "Governor Reagan" supports an attack on the welfare system by quoting a headline from the New York Daily News of May 2, 1953."

"Nab Welfare Mom in Baby Axing," it reads.

In 1953, the News was riding high on an editorial menu dominated by crime, sex and disaster, and it cockily turned away any suggestions that less sensational but potentially more significant stories might better replace some of the baby axings.

Analysts, media critics and publishing executives agree that the News is a much better paper as a result of changes during the 1970s, but some wonder if the changes weren't financially self-defeating.

The News had hoped to force the Times to become the paper of an even thinner slice of New York's wealthy, yielding a wider middle ground to the other morning newspaper. The low ground was conceded three years ago to the Post when Australian Urpert Murdoch bought the afternoon paper and aimed to capture the sex and crime readership.

Murdoch's problem has not been circulation, but advertising. The Post sells close to 650,000 copies daily, almost entirely at newstands, and pulled off something of a coup by raising its price from 25 to 30 cents without significant circulation loss despite the customers' added difficulty in fishing out two coins instead of a quarter.

"The question is can circulation growth be translated into a share of the advertising market," one source remarked. The answer won't be known until the major stores make their fall advertising decisions.

The Post had a puny 7.8 percent to the News' 38 percent, and the Times' 55.7 percent of the 1979 advertising linage, according to Media Records Inc. 5

One major advertiser is scathing about the Post. "It is not an editorial environment that we would be comfortable with," he said in attributing the Post's lack of advertising to a reluctance of major stores to sell their products next to the sometimes lurid stories in the paper -- and, perhaps more crucial, to the audience the Post serves.

The nickel price increase has cut Post losses, but the tabloid is still widely believed to be in the red. Although it is privately held, figures about its earnings have become public from time to time. Most recently, there was a report that revenues for the last six months of 1979 the Post had a pre-tax loss of $3.5 million.

In an effort to save money and position itself for the next round of newspaper labor negotiations, the Post just gained relief that will amount to savings of about $600,000 from the delivery drivers' union, a source said.

Part of the agreement is that the drivers' contract with the Post has been extended 90 days. The drivers therefore will bargain first with the News and Times.

The News and Post have been threatening for more than two years to invade each other's turf -- the News by starting an afternoon edition, the Post by publishing in the morning.

The only new challenge is due this month from Publisher Michael Goldstein's Wall Street Final. Goldstein said in an interview that his evening paper is not designed to compete with anyone, but to fill a void. He aims at the affluent, sophisticated commuters, and plans to give them a 16-page "information sheet" at 5 p.m. every day the stock markets are open.

In addition to final stock tables, the paper will have a general package of short news items. "We're not in the business of giving in-depth reports," Goldstein said, "Our audience knows the background anyway."

The Wall Street Final will have no pictures, no comics, no features and will be published with a news and business staff of 15, Goldstein said. It can break even with 2 1/2 pages of advertising and a circulation of 15,000, he claimed.

From their offices, New York Times executives are contemplating the beginning of the 1980s with considerable serenity. Their annual report April 30 reported the highest operating profit in history for 1979, $27.4 million. That is up 468 percent from 1975.

The Times picked up 51,000 daily circulation in the last six months for its largest gain in years. In contrast to the other New York papers, the Times is doing well in the suburbs. Its circulation growth, President Walter Mattson said, is being targeted on those people of greatest interest to its advertisers.

Newspaper analysts debate whether The Times is planning to launch a national paper. "They have reached a plateau in this market," said one analyst who believes they will go national.

In June, a two-section version of the Times will be printed in Chicago for distribution in a nine-state area. Mattson and other Times executives say this is not the first step toward a national paper, but only a means to serve midwestern subscribers better.

"I don't think it's in the cards," Mattson said when asked about a national paper. He said Times executives have not given any thought to a second regional publishing center after Chicago, but that such a center would be more likely than a national paper. An attempt to produce a Times West Coast edition failed 15 years ago.

Mattson predicted five years ago that New York would be down to two dailies within 10 years. He hasn't changed his mind.

Most newspaper analysts agree that in a world governed solely by dollars and cents a New York paper might well disappear.

"The decisions in markets like New York are not necessarily made for business reasons," Ellen Berland Sachar of Goldman Sachs and Co. said.

For all New York's troubles, it is still a glamorous center in which to be a publisher and that -- more than anything else -- may keep it a three-newspaper town for some time.