NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ Jim Willse, former editor and publisher of the New York Daily News, is taking over the top editorial spot at The Star-Ledger, succeeding 31-year editor Mort Pye.

Pye, who helped build the paper into the nation's 14th largest daily in his 37 years as managing editor and editor, is retiring early next year, the Star- Ledger announced Wednesday.

For the past 1 1/2 years, Willse has headed a technology task force for Newhouse Newspapers, the Star-Ledger's parent.

Willse, 51, worked on the national desk of The Associated Press in New York and as news editor at the cooperative's San Francisco bureau until 1977. He became city editor and managing editor at the San Francisco Examiner before moving to the Daily News in 1984.

Pye, 76, began his newspaper career 54 years ago as a reporter at another Newhouse newspaper, the now-defunct Long Island Press, where he rose to assistant editor.

He came to the Newark paper as managing editor in 1957 and became editor in 1963. Under his tenure it grew into the 14th-largest daily newspaper in the country, with a weekday circulation of 474,000, and Sunday circulation of 704,000.

''He has, in fact, created the newspaper for New Jersey,'' said Donald Newhouse, president of the newspaper.