Conservation runs deep in this southern capital and the two newspapers published here by Media General, Inc. are bucking some liberal industry trends aimed at boosting readership and cutting costs. And there hasn't been a ripple of concern.

For one thing, they haven't adopted, as many papers have, a bolder magazine-style design to attract reader attention - and more circulation. Folks in Richmond just don't like that fancy horizontal layout, said Alan S. Donnahoe, president of Media General, a publicly owned, diversified communication company with six newspapers in three states.

"They're just not used to it. I think it's more than a matter appearance. I think people read the newspaper to get news and the trouble with this magazine format carried to extreme is that they look at a page with nothing on it. Two or three stories on a page - and I just don't think that's what people are looking for. They like to see a lot of things there."

While other newspapers were busy trimming the widths of their pages during the recent recession to save on the skyrocketing cost of newspring (now more than $300 a ton) the morning Richmond Times-Dispatch and the evening Richmond News Leader stayed the same. Instead of switching to the popular six-column format for advertising, designed to yield more ad revenue while saving on paper, the two papers kept the more traditional eight columns for both.

Donnahoe debunks the cost-savings rationale. "That saving in newsprint is to me the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened in the newspaper industry. I was talking to the chief financial officer of one of the top chains in America. They were one of the pioneers in this effort and this is a fine financial man.

"I said, 'Let me ask you a question. Did anybody in your company figure out that this is what you were doing? You had a one-time, 3 per cent (advertising) rate increase (from the conversion) and in lieu of that you've come to this funny looking little narrow page. No, he said, 'I don't think they ever did.' I've got to say that to me that's crazy."

Media General did, however, adopt the horizontal makeup and new column formats for its two Florida papers, the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Times, but only because "Florida is a special situation," says Donnahoe. "They've had that kind of fancy layout for years theree and apparently they like it." The Tampa papers converted to the new column formats because most Florida papers switched, he said.

The company has two papers in North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Winston-Salem Sentinel. The Sentinel tried the magezine style graphics but surveys showed reader dissatisfaction, and it changed back to the more traditional style, Donnahoe says.

Media General is the 22nd largest newspaper company in a combined daily circulation of about 540,000. Other media properties include a television and radio AM FM combination in the Tampa St. Petersburg market and a Fredericksburg. Va., cable television system.

The broadcast properties, which last year produced $12.7 million of the company's total revenue of $199 million (earnings amounted to $15.9 million), may have to be sold or swapped. An appeals court decision earlier this year directed the Federal Communications Commission to break up joint newspaper-broadcast combinations where they exist in the same city, in this case Tampa, to encourage diversification of ownership.

The decision overturned an FCC ruled that would have permitted so-called cross-ownership arrangements to continue. The case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court ruling infuraties Donnahoe. Newspapers were encouraged to invest in television stations when the medium was getting off the ground in the early 1940s, he said. "Now to go back and tell newspapers after these many years who have, by and large, done a superb job in running these TV stations that you've got to sell is to me as gross an inequity that you can have in this world."

A subsidiary, the Garden State Paper Co., recycles old newspapers to produce usable newsprint: It is the largest such company in the world. Media General also will manage a $125 million, 156,000-ton-capacity newsprint mill to be built at Dublin, Ga., a venture with two other newspaper corporations, Knight-Ridder and Cox Enterprises, as equal partners.

In addition, Media General also publishes Consultant, a medical magazine, and operates nine other companies, including three commercial printing and typesetting enterprises, a corrugated sheet company (which uses the residue of the recycling plant). Last year it formed a partnership with a French firm and a financial service to publish a weekly paper. Market Digest, Donnahoe hints that the company is thinking of producing other financial publications but declines to give details.

Until 1972, Media General owned a now detunct New Jersey daily, the Newark News. The closing of this paper in August 1972. Little more than two years after Media General bought it, shook the industry.

In May 1971, the Newspaper Guild, the editorial and commercial employees' union, went on strike for eight months. During that time, Media General sold the Sunday News and the production plant to Newhouse and agreed to a joint operating arrangement with that company's Newark Star-Ledger on the resumption of publication. This caused trouble with the mechanical unions which held out for three additional months to negotiable new contracts.

In all, the News didn't publish for 11 months. It resumed publication in April 1972 but closed four months later. At that time it was losing $1 million a month. Donnahoe said that Newark advertisers in general and grocery stores in particular found they could do without the News.

"They decided one paper was enough. Advertisers have this tendency. They do a lot of lip service to having a lot newspapers. They really don't want them," he said.

Donnahoe laments the passing of the News. "Had it not been for that silly strike we could have had a good newspaper up there today. And they need it. God knows they need it."

Donnahoe, a former editorial writer, says the content of American papers "leaves a lot to be desired. I think it's superficial in terms of coverage. I think a great deal of improvement could be made in writing. I think we're too wordy." Newspapers and wire services, he says, "have got to do more in-depth articles."

Media General is seeking additional media properties, but the asking prices for most television stations and newspapers are unrealistically high, Donnahoe said. He's looking for family-owned papers interested in the "philosophy and caliber" of the buyer instead of merely auctioning off the property to the highest bidder.

In an industry that at least one press critic. Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post news executive, says has suffered from marketing myopia and little apparent desire in the past to use modern economic analysis to evaluate itself. Media General may be something of a rarity.

Its research director, John Mauro, is recognized as one of the best in the business and Media General is deeply engaged in a variety of research activities, mainly concerning readership, circulation and distribution patterns. The six newspapers all have converted to new production technology which has cut costs as a per cent of revenue by 14.5 per cent from 1969 through 1976.

Donnahoe himself was director of research for the Richmond Chamber of Commers and Richmond Newspapers, Inc. the foreunner of Media General before it went public, prior to climbing up the executive ladder. His comments are laced with the jargon of the statistician and computer technician.

In 1957 he wrote an article for a scholarly journal entitled "Mass Communication Theory: A Macroseopic Approach" which dealt with reconciling readership surveys with readers' needs. More recently, he has been writing about a new circulation incentive plan developed by the Times-Dispatch and News Leader which has gained the attention of other newspapers.

The plan classifies each of Richmond's 2,100 carrier routes into one of 15 socioeconomic groups and then compares them with the circulation norm for that group. A bonus is paid each month to district managers for circulation gains compared to the norm based on a factor that recognizes the difficulty of achievement within each group.

In a matter of months, circulation of the two dailies rose nearly 5 per cent and the Sunday edition circulation increased nearly 9 per cent.

"You can pick any carrier route and we can tell you specifically what it's doing . . . it was a most papers have worked out a telephone-computer-shortwave relay system that gets a paper delivered to an overlooked subseriber within an hour. The complaint department calls later tomake sure the paper has arrived.