GAZETA WYBORCZA doesn't look like much of a newspaper. Most of its journalists are unpaid volunteers. Its offices are in a converted day-care center. Each day's edition runs only eight tabloid pages. The print is fuzzy, and the layout is old-fashioned, with black blotches of type broken up by only a few photos. But Gazeta is a path-breaker - at the cutting edge of reform in the Soviet bloc.
Sponsored by the independent Solidarity trade union, it is the region's first noncommunist or nonchurch publication. In the first edition on May 8, Lech Walesa hailed Gazeta as the ``first independent newspaper from the Elbe to the Pacific.''
``We're unique,'' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, assistant managing editor. ``Our goal is to become one of the world's major papers.''
That goal isn't as quixotic as it might first sound. Even though Gazeta costs 50 zlotys a copy, twice the price of any other Polish newspaper, it sells 500,000 copies a day. It probably could sell double that total, but it isn't permitted to print any more copies in this country of perpetual paper shortages.
Eager readers line up before 7 a.m. at kiosks. By 7:30, the paper invariably is sold out. Precious copies circulate hand to hand, apartment to apartment. Gazeta also has begun circulating on the black market - at two times the listed price.
``I'm willing to get up so early for the Gazeta because it's our first newspaper which tells the truth,'' explains Julia Trzcinska, a white-haired widow. ``Everybody else lies.''
When Solidarity was formed in 1980, the new union put out its own weekly. But Poland's Communist rulers rejected the possibility of publishing a newspaper. Dailies packed too much power, they argued.
Only after Solidarity was relegalized this spring did it win the right to publish a daily newspaper. The project for Gazeta was born, with the immediate aim of helping the union prepare for June's parliamentary elections. The newspaper's full name ``Gazeta Wyborcza'' means ``Electoral Gazette.''
Before the newspaper could appear, it needed to find office space. No one seemed to want to rent to Solidarity's newspaper. Finally, a nursery school was located - perhaps not so coincidently in a neighborhood near the Ministry of Interior known for its large secret-police population.
Putting together a staff proved difficult. After the declaration of martial law in 1981, some Solidarity journalists fled to the underground press. Others found refuge in the Catholic press. And yet others found work with apolitical ``leisure'' magazines.
``We all had such varied experiences,'' says editor Danuta Zagrodzka, herself a veteran of an official women's monthly. ``Our only advantage was our enthusiasm.''
For the underground veterans, the pressures of operating out in the open proved particularly trying. Instead of publishing small editions using desk-top computer techniques, they have been forced back to the typewriter era. Gazeta's own set of computers, donated from the West, remains worthless because no Polish printing plant has modern offset printing machines that can read computer-generated type.
Even worse, all articles must be submitted for censorship. Solidarity ironically asked for censorship as a sort of protection; otherwise, the authorities could have claimed ``defamation'' under Poland's arbitrary legal system and imposed huge fines to drive the paper into bankruptcy. But for journalists used to writing whatever they want, no matter the consequences, the change has come as a shock.
``Everything is much harder above ground than below ground,'' laments managing editor Helena Luczywo. ``The underground was its own separate world.''
With the new responsibility of operating out in the open havecome new conflicts.
Should Gazeta faithfully represent the views of Solidarity's leadership, in the tradition of French journalism? Or should it be more ``objective'' in the American sense of the word?
Some snicker that Gazeta is just as partisan as the Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Luda. ``It's `Solidarity's Trybuna Luda,''' one reader says. But other readers want a more overt identification with the newly legalized trade union. Scores of letters have poured in proposing that Gazeta's name be changed after the elections to Our Gazeta.
The editors themselves don't seem to have made up their minds. Editor-in-chief Adam Michnik, one of Poland's most celebrated dissident polemicists and now a Solidarity parliamentary deputy, tends to view the newspaper as serving an advocacy function first. He angered much of the staff by interviewing Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski.
When managing editor Luczywo questions one of the editorials, Mr. Michnik tells her, ``This is politics.'' She responds, ``No, this is a newspaper.''
How this conflict is resolved will be decisive for the paper's future. According to assistant managing editor Sliwinski, all the journalists share one goal: to make Gazeta a different type of Soviet-bloc newspaper.
``Gazeta should become a must read for people all over the world,'' he says. ``It will offer a unique perspective on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.''