The first hint of serious trouble may have been the "coup" in June, when five top editors of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat were fired.

Then several employes complained that their paychecks bounced, and news came that medical and dental insurance had been "temporarily" halted.

One steamy afternoon, as staff members seemed near rebellion in the unair-conditioned offices of the Globe-Democrat, publisher Jeffrey M. Gluck ordered a box filled with stacks of cash sent to the newsroom and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with a $100 limit for each person.

"I call it 'As the Globe Turns.' There's something new every day, every hour," said Nathanial Helms, 35, a reporter who quit the newspaper recently to try private investigating. Helms, one of 14 employes or former employes petitioning a federal judge to order the Globe into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, has become a chief character in a real-life newspaper soap opera.

In this dismal saga, staff members are pitted against publisher and each other, using energy that would normally be turned against their formidable competition, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gluck, 32, a publishing wunderkind viewed as a hero when he arrived in St. Louis 18 months ago to save the Globe, has found his supporters turning into vocal critics as he labors to sell the paper or attract investors to keep it from folding.

The bespectacled publisher, whose soft, boyish looks belie a well-documented toughness, has not taken the revolt lightly. In response to the bankruptcy petition, Gluck filed a countermotion demanding that the 14 petitioners, 11 of whom still work for him, put up a bond for $18 million. He said he has lost that amount because of their effort to push the Globe into bankruptcy proceedings, which froze debts and payments of debts incurred before Aug. 19, the day the bankruptcy motion was filed. "That group was made up of disgruntled staff members who felt their days were numbered here," Gluck said. "It just so happened that those 14 people literally matched our problem list, name for name."

Gluck and his lawyers also argue that the petition, to be heard in court Sept. 27, was filed in "bad faith" because, two hours before the filing, they offered to pay the 14 what he owed them.

Lawyers for the petitioners, some of whom are becoming so angry that they call themselves "Globebusters," argued that, when they were offered $14,000 in American Express money orders, they did not know how much money was owed them. In a motion last week, lawyers for the 14 argued that the payoff offer to prevent the bankruptcy filing "would be at best improper." Gluck called that "baloney."

The internecine warfare, with daily battles mentioned on local television news shows, hobbles a newspaper already handicapped financially. The Post-Dispatch, a bigger, richer paper, has grown even fatter in the last 18 months. Its circulation, at 265,000, is up about 30,000 from 1983 to 1984 and reportedly still climbing. At the Globe, where circulation was listed at 255,000 shortly before Gluck purchased it, the numbers have dropped by at least 40,000.

Meanwhile, the Globe Democrat has lost services because of late payments and faced loss of printing facilities. Taxes are overdue, which Gluck blames on the bankruptcy petition and insists are temporary.

For newspaper traditionalists, the Globe's obvious slide is cause for dismay, threatening to make St. Louis the latest in a long list of cities where battling newspapers have merged or expired, resulting in a local monopoly. Moreover, the two papers were at odds politically, giving readers a choice between the Globe-Democrat's Republican editorials and the Democratic voice on the Post-Dispatch editorial page.

When Gluck bought the paper in January 1984, he foiled what would have been an enormously lucrative agreement between the Newhouse Newspaper Group, which then owned the morning Globe, and the Pulitzer Publishing Corp., owner of the then-afternoon Post-Dispatch.

Newhouse and Pulitzer agreed to close the Globe and share Post-Dispatch profits under a joint operating agreement, sanctioned by the 1971 Newspaper Preservation Act. The law, which allows competing dailies to merge some operations while maintaining separate editorial staffs, was designed to foster competition. "But this time it was used for just the opposite," said Charles L. Klotzer, who publishes a spunky monthly newspaper called The St. Louis Journalism Review.

Without Gluck, who bought the paper for a reported $500,000, the Newhouses and Pulitzers were slated to earn $15 million a year by turning St. Louis into a one-newspaper town, according to reports at the time. Many community leaders saw Gluck as the Sir Galahad of the publishing world, saving the city's newspaper in distress. Globe reporters considering other jobs decided to stay, as Gluck fostered their natural love for scooping the bigger, slower competitor.

"Journalistically, I think competition has been good, and I'm afraid the Post-Dispatch already acts as if it is the only paper in town now," Klotzer said.

Of Post-Dispatch advertising that suggests readers start referring to itself as "the paper," Klotzer said, "It's a little arrogant."

He also faults the Globe for what he believes is "a tendency to give in to the business side" as Gluck struggles to compete with the Post-Dispatch for journalistic scoops and advertising. Klotzer and others cite a story June 20 about how the Defense Department was investigating 45 defense contractors, including McDonnell-Douglas, Emerson Electric and General Dynamics, all based in St. Louis. Former managing editor Patrick Gauen ordered the story on page one, considering it a "fairly routine wire story" combining reports by States News Service and United Press International.

When the first edition of the paper reached Gluck's home about 11 p.m. June 19, Gluck called and had it "yanked" from subsequent editions, as he said later.

Gluck said the story, a version of which appeared in most major papers and on the Post-Dispatch front page, was published against his rule that he must clear "anything that looks like a smear job."

Gluck also said he believes that Gauen may have put the story on page one "to tweak my nose" for firing him two days earlier. Gauen said Gluck fired him at 3:30 p.m. on the day the story appeared, not two days earlier.

"I already knew I had to leave, and this was simply something to nudge me in another direction," said Gauen, who now works for the Post-Dispatch as a reporter.

As Gluck prepared recently for the court battle about the bankruptcy petition, he learned that Ralph Ingersoll II, a serious bidder for the paper, had dropped out of the running. Ingersoll owns a chain of shopping papers distributed free in suburban St. Louis.

"I wouldn't say it's a foregone conclusion now that there is going to be" a sale, Gluck said last Friday, shortly before his 370 employes received their first paycheck in weeks, cashed on the spot by Gluck's managers. "We're just going to have to turn it around the hard way," he said