There was a time when the life of a Western correspondent in Eastern Europe consisted largely of cultivating a handful of officials and Western diplomats, ploughing through the tedious columns of the local press, meeting the odd dissident. The formation in Poland of the communist world's first independent trade union has changed all that.

Suddenly Eastern Europe has been transformed from a relative backwater in foreign news terms to the source of front-page headlines all over the world. The Western reporter's once-relaxed routine has become unpredictable, exhausting and occasionally exhilarating. The satisfactions and frustrations of the job have increased enormously.

The rise of Solidarity, the Polish independent union federation, has opened up a galaxy of sources usually out of reach to the Westerner in a communist country. The task of the Western reporter has been made both more easy and more difficult. Much more information is available. But it tends to be very diffuse and takes more tramping around to get.

Of course, by East European standards, Poland has long been a refreshingly open society, even before last summer's strikes. Individual Poles were prepared to discuss their country's problems with considerable candor. But usually they preferred not to be quoted by name -- and it was difficult for the Western reporter to get a first-hand understanding of what was going wrong.

One result was that foreign journalists, in common with the Polish authorities, were somewhat taken in by the former government's "propaganda of success." The "achievements" of the early 1970s, when huge, ill-conceived investments paid for by foreign loans prepared the ground for subsequent economic disaster, were applauded almost as much in the West as in the official Polish media.

Almost overnight, the problem facing the foreign reporter has been reversed. So much information surfaces about strikes and conflicts that it is possible to be swept away by the daily sensations and lose sight of what is really going on underneath.

This perhaps helps explain the phenomenon, remarked upon by many Western visitors to Poland, that viewed from inside the country the situation looks calmer than from outside.

In July, when scattered strikes broke out around Poland in protest against a rise in meat prices, virtually all information about them came from a dissident group, the Committee for Social Self-Defense, known as KOR. It was only in late August, when the unrest spread to the Baltic Coast, that Western journalists were themselves able to visit the scenes of strikes and witness the anger sweeping the country.

Today strike news comes in many forms.As a news source, KOR has virtually dried up. Instead, individual Solidarity branches issue their own communiques, in Warsaw, in information and research center sponsored by Solidarity publishes its own uncensored daily news bulletin. And lately the officially controlled press and television have been carrying surprisingly detailed daily roundups of protests and negotiations under way.

For the Western journalist, professionally the most rewarding experience is to visit factories and talk to the workers. Just a few months ago, such visits were carefully supervised and reliable workers selected for interview. Now nobody attempts to maintain this old charade.

Among many Polish workers weaned on official propaganda there is an innocent trust in the varacity of the Western press. This is flattering, but it can also be embarrassing. A television team from the British Broadcasting Corp. described how they were greeted at one strike-hit plant by ranks of cheering workers chanting "B-B-C, B-B-C." It was almost as though they had just raised the siege and freed a beleaguered garrison.

One of the techniques that has had to be relearned by Western reporters in East Europe covering the crisis here has been that of doorstepping. Frequently the only way of getting swift information about the outcome of negotiations between government and unions is to stand outside the building in which they are meeting -- and wait for the two sides to come out.

Since many meetings go on until 3 in the morning, this can be tiring. On freezing cold nights, it can also be very uncomfortable.

Some Polish officials are, however, learning the art of good public relations. Last week a Cabinet minister professed shock when he saw a group of frozen reporters waiting in the cold outside government headquarters in Warsaw while crucial talks dragged on interminably inside. He invited them into the lobby -- and the official government spokesman sent down coffee and cookies.

In the opposing camp, some Solidarity officials are rapidly acquiring bureaucratic techniques for dealing with the press. One of the first acts of the strike committee in Gdansk was to manufacture a rubber stamp to validate press passes. Meanwhile weekly meetings of Solidarity's national committee, once open to the press, now take place behind closed doors.

For many Western journalists, however, the most frustrating aspect of the Polish crisis is getting to Poland at all. After a relatively relaxed policy last year toward visiting correspondents, the authorities have tightened up considerably. Once inside the country, the visiting journalist is required to extend his visa every week with the Interior Ministry. This often involved long negotiations with the Foreign Ministry and repeated trips to the passport office to fill in forms and change money. Visas can be revoked at any time. The result has frayed nerves among the itinerant press corps for whom visa problems are often the main subject of conversation. The tension frequently shows. A few days ago, an American reporter from a Chicago television station was pressing doggedly for an interview with Solidarity's leader Lech Walesa.

His team had encountered enormous problems getting permission from the government to enter Poland, he told Solidarity's harassed press spokesman. The entire mission would fail unless Walesa agreed to talk to them for 10 minutes. He then produced what he thought was his clinching argument: "After all there are more than a million Poles in Chicago -- and we mustn't disappoint them."

"Ah yes," replied the Solidarity official, "but there are 35 million Poles here and they're more important. You'll just have to wait."