An end to the 39-day Philadelphia newspaper strike appeared near as negotiators moved toward settlement yesterday, according to labor and management officials.

"The two sides are close to a tentative agreement on wages and benefits and talks are continuing," said William Gullifer, president of a council that represents the nine unions striking The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News. He denied an earlier report by a Newspaper Guild spokesman that a settlement had been reached.

William Broom, a spokesman for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., which publishes the two papers, called the announcement of a settlement "premature," and added, "Talks are at a very sensitive level right now. There's a very good chance of success."

Sources familiar with the negotiations said the company had made a money offer that could settle the strike but that union negotiators had to check with their separate negotiating committees for approval. Each union also has to calculate how it wants to split the money between wages and benefits.

The nine unions, which bargain together on economic issues, represent 4,700 striking reporters, mailers, truck drivers and other employes.

The two papers, with a combined daily circulation of around 900,000, have not published since the walkout began Sept. 7.

A major noneconomic issue -- concerning manning levels for new automated newspaper-stuffing equipment -- was settled earlier.

The company initially offered a pay and benefits package of $90 a week over three years, while the unions sought $200 a week over the same period.

When talks resumed Monday through a federal mediator after a week's hiatus, the company offered $133 a week over four years, and the unions demanded $145 over three years, Broom said.

The latest proposal is for a weekly increase of $150 a week over four years, plus a personal holiday and a change in the vacation schedule valued at another $5 a week, sources said.