National magazine publishing in Washington is a major, but often little-noticed force in the local economy, an industry overshadowed by the prominence and power of publishing's Manhattan circle.

But in its own right, Washington may be the second most significant center of magazine publishing. And when you add the area's thousands of newsletters, Washington becomes vital to the government and public affairs writing that is the heart of much of the industry.

"Washington is much more of a publishing center than people think," said John Fox Sullivan, president of the Government Research Corp.'s publishing division and publisher of the influential National Journal.

It is also a field that has helped keep the area's printing business afloat and fostered related enterprises ranging from book publishing to conference planning. Most importantly, magazines comprise an important part of the publishing field and is one District business that is unlikely to follow others to the suburbs.

According to a recent study for the District government by Brimmer & Co., the printing and publishing business is responsible for 65 percent of all District manufacturing firms with more than 20 employes.

"Printing and publishing is the most important manufacturing activity in the metropolitan region," said the report, which suggested that many businesses were eager to leave the city. "The outlook for the industry in the District continues to be positive."

No solid data is available on the magazine industry's share of the publishing business here, but there is little doubt that magazines are a significant and, at least for the moment, growing industry. For example, nonprofit National Geographic magazine has a circulation of more than 10.5 million, behind only TV Guide and Reader's Digest in national circulation.

But in many ways, the giant of the local industry is U.S. News and World Report Inc., which is the second-largest publishing company in the city, behind only The Washington Post Co., which operates Newsweek out of New York City.

Revenues of U.S. News this year are expected to exceed $100 million. U.S. News executives boast of the richest circulation market of any major magazine included in the Simmons Market Research Bureau studies of industry demographics. For example, U.S. News, according to the Simmons surveys, reaches households with the highest median income, $24,403, of any major magazine. And 12 percent of the households that take U.S. News earn more than $50,000, the highest reader salary of the major publications.

U.S. News executives pride themselves on being leaders in the technological evolution of electronic magazine publishing. For example, U.S. News pioneered satellite distribution to remote printing plants.

It is also unusual because it is owned, in effect, by the employes' profit-sharing plan. Figures are not publicly available about the company's profits, although industry analysts say many large concerns are aware of the company's current and potential profitability and have approached management about purchasing the company or its subsidiaries. It is not for sale, maintains U.S. News' management.

But the U.S. News company has evolved from a somewhat sleepy magazine publisher to a growing concern with rumblings of interest in broadcasting and a massive commitment to a major redevelopment project near the company's West End headquarters in the District. That $200 million joint venture with Boston Properties on more than three acres will be both a commercial and residential project of 900,000 square feet.

The company will be able to expand its headquarters building from about 120,000 square feet to about 150,000 square feet. "We've outgrown our headquarters," said U.S. News Chairman John H. Sweet of the firm's sprawling facility at 24th and N streets NW. "But this building is not very efficient. You can walk one block one way in this building and one block another way just to get to a desk."

Construction of the new project should start during the middle of next year, Sweet said. "We'll be in before five years," he added. More important may be the financial impact the commercial property will have on the company. "It will probably give us a somewhat larger financial base than we have today and allow us to get further into radio and television," Sweet said.

The facility is also expected to include a communications center, which will offer satellite hook-up equipment for other news concerns. In addition, the project includes a 450-room "luxury" hotel, an office building, and high rise and town house condominiums.

Company officials also plan to enter the technological battlefield of electronic media. They entered the book-publishing field several years ago.

The cornerstore of U.S. News is the weekly magazine, which its editors emphasize stresses hard news in contrast to the lighter features of some of its competitors, such as Time and Newsweek. "Hard news is our particular specialty," boasted Sweet.

Sweet, who spent 35 years working his way through the circulation division to the company's top slot, does not see U.S. News owning broadcasting stations, but says, like his colleagues, that the magazine will adapt well to the development of electronic media.

In fact, the company announced last week that it has purchased Parkway Productions, a Bethesda company that U.S. News says is the nation's largest producer and distributor of "fine-arts radio programming." The company provides satellite transmissions of programming to more than 300 stations.

The new venture will be called Parkway Communications Corp. "We're interested in radio broadcast programming in order to get into the next phase of the satellite business," Sweets said. In addition, the company is working on adapting the magazine's survey of the most powerful people in the nation to a video format.

"We need to get experience in the field of electronic news," said James H. McIlhenny. "Broadcasting is another form of publishing. We will get into the electronic transmission of news. What we're not sure of is how things will get distributed. We're having an information explosion, and people will be seeing and listening to news produced by U.S. News." lthough U.S. News, which has been in its current format for more than 40 years, is a senior member of this city's national magazine publishing business, Broadcasting Magazine, published in quarters on DeSales Street NW for 28 years, will celebrate its 50th birthday in October. Founded by the current chairman of Broadcasting Publications Inc., Sol Taishoff, the magazine, which calls itself "The News Magazine of the Fifth Estate," has survived and charted the dramatic changes in the industry's technology.

The growth of technology from the years of radio, when Broadcasting was founded, to the current satellite boom is among the reasons the weekly magazine's president, Lawrence B. Taishoff, son of its founder, says the magazine will stay here whether the industry he monitors is deregulated or not. "I think Washington will only become more powerful," Taishoff said. "Someone is going to have to be the regulatory voice, and it's going to be the Federal Communications Commission."

"Washington," said Taishoff, "is more than just the focus of a regulated industry. It's also the center of journalism."

Broadcasting is essentially a trade journal, even though Taishoff likes to point out that schools and students receive more than 8,000 of the more than 40,000 copies of the magazine published each week.

Broadcasting benefited from the 1960s expansion of the federal government and its role in the private sector.

So did the burgeoning newsletter business here. The reading lists of corporate executives grew as their governmental concerns expanded from tax policy, for example, to an interest in the latest regulations to environmental and health and safety rules. Public affairs journalism took on added importance for the private sector and state officials, and the reading list of executives and bureaucrats expanded to include government and specialized industry magazines.

What the cutbacks on the expansion of the federal role will ultimately mean is unclear, although some industry experts suggest that the regulatory rollback pledged by the Reagan administration will limit the need for the specialized newsletter. "Some will go under this decade," predicted one publishing executive.

But even though the Reagan administration is committed to slashing red tape, shifting power to the states and generally trimming the federal establishment's tentacles, most Washington publishers doubt they will lose their value.

Top officials of two leading sources of information on Washington governmental affairs -- National Journal and Congressional Quarterly -- also doubt that the Reagan brand of federalism will alter their successes. "You can't take the federal government out of people's lives," said Wayne P. Kelley, executive editor and publisher of Congressional Quarterly. "It's like taking the politics out of politics."

Sullivan agreed. "If the Reagan revolution actually takes place -- that is to say, that power is dispersed to the states and more money is spent by the states -- we would want to have more coverage of statehouses," he said. "No one has covered the new federalism more than we have. We'll be around for a long, long time."

Local publishers also doubt that the newsletter boom has hurt their markets and doubt that it can. "Our competition is a person's belief that he's got too much to read," said Sullivan. "If you assume that there is an expanding market of people in this country interested in learning about government, the proliferation of other publications helps expand that market. The proliferation has been good for us."