The Washington area has quietly emerged as one of the nation's magazine and newsletter publishing centers.

Fueled by the overwhelming amount of information generated in the nation's capital and by growing corporate interest in federal activities here, Washington's publishing industry has developed into one of the largest and fastest growing in the nation. It lags behind only New York, the nation's advertising center, and probably Chicago, according to magazine publishing consultant Bernard Gordon.

"Washington is the fastest growing, most booming market for publishing in the country. It's not a consumer-based market, but there are a tremendous proliferation of niche publications," such as government-related magazines, trade publications and newsletters, said John Fox Sullivan, publisher and president of the National Journal.

"The mass-circulation magazines may still be concentrated in New York, but the specialty magazines ... the idea magazines are here," said Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, published quarterly by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Over the years, the lure of the nation's political power center has drawn a vast array of periodicals to Washington, from U.S. News & World Report to New Republic to Kiplinger's newsletters.

Publications catering to the professions that deal heavily with the government, such as Washington Journalism Review and Legal Times, have followed. Washington has also spawned a vast number of less visible specialty publications, such as newsletters and trade magazines. The Bureau of National Affairs publishes about 80 newsletters, including seven new ones started in the past 12 months. Other sizable companies include Phillips Publishing Inc., Business Publishers Inc. and National Information Corp.

There are 3,200 associations and hundreds of labor groups, special interest groups and think tanks scattered throughout the area, and most of them publish periodicals. They range from publications like Common Cause, an award-winning muckracking bimonthly with a circulation of 280,000, to Architecture magazine, a strikingly attractive 75,000-circulation magazine from the American Institute of Architects.

The American Association of Retired Persons publishes a 15.5 million-circulation monthly called the AARP News Bulletin, and the National Rifle Association publishes two monthly magazines, American Rifleman and American Hunter, each with circulation of about 1.4 million.

"There is so much influence exercised here. The stakes are very large... . Publications are a relatively inexpensive way to try to influence public policy," said Edward Styles, director of publications for American Enterprise Institute, which publishes two bimonthly magazines, a monthly newsletter and about 100 other publications a year.

In addition, corporate America increasingly is turning to paid advertising to reach Washington decision makers, and publishers say the local publishing industry has been a key beneficiary.

"There's been a tremendous increase in the amount of advertising dollars targeted to reach Congress, the White House and other policymakers," said Sullivan of the National Journal, which was bought by Times Mirror Co. of Los Angeles last year.

In fact, Sullivan said the National Journal purchased the low-profile Government Executive magazine earlier this year after hearing several National Journal advertisers asking where else they could buy ads to reach Washington movers and shakers.

With an eye to attracting such ads, American Stock Exchange Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. bought the congressional newspaper Roll Call last year.

And in the past two years, The Times Journal Co. of Springfield has started Defense News, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. has purchased Government Computer News of Silver Spring, and CW Communications has started Federal Computer Week in Fairfax County. All three moves were prompted by the advertising potential of high-technology contractors seeking to reach their most lucrative market, the federal government.

Even New Republic, which historically has depended more on book ads, has taken note, according to publisher and president Jeffrey L. Dearth. He said the magazine has been attempting to pump up its historically anemic advertising operation by attracting some blue-chip names, like Mobil Oil Corp., Boeing Co. and McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Annual advertising has gone from 400 pages to 460 pages in the past three years. That's not a mammoth leap, Dearth said, but it is a respectable improvement given the soft advertising market.

Washington does have some publications that don't take aim at the political establishment. Lopez Publication in Alexandria puts out four racing magazines, including Stock Car Racing and Super Stock & Drag Illustrated. Science News is a 215,000-circulation news weekly that tracks scientific developments. Heldref Publications puts out 45 educational journals, including Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, The Journal of Popular Film & Television, and Rocks and Minerals. Regional magazines include Washingtonian, Regardie's, Washington Dossier, and two new entries, Fairfax and New Dominion.

But all in all, politics and policy publications dominate the Washington scene. Congressional Quarterly, Wilson Quarterly, Washington Monthly, The Brookings Review, Cato Policy Report, Campaign & Elections, Election Politics, Army Times, Foreign Policy, The Journal of Palestine Studies, Middle East Journal and The Cook Political Report are among the seemingly endless parade.

"This is far and away the best place for us of anywhere in the world," said William Hearn, publisher of International Executive Reports, which publishes two monthly magazines and two newsletters on trade with Asia and the Middle East.

Pointing to the Commerce Department, Congress, the embassies and such international organizations as the World Bank, Hearn said: "This place is unrivaled as a source of information. It's one reason why more publishing companies are looking more at Washington."

Robert T. Gray, editor of Nation's Business, the 75-year-old Chamber of Commerce magazine, agreed. He said that although the magazine doesn't do as many stories as it used to on the government, its Washington location is still desirable. It puts the magazine in the center of thousands of trade and business associations, which can be treasure chests of information and story ideas.

A few years ago, Don West, editor of Broadcasting magazine, considered moving the magazine to New York to be closer to the television networks. But he did not, citing the advantage of being close to the federal regulatory apparatus.

"No doubt it would have been a different magazine if it had been published in New York rather than here," West said. Broadcasting magazine was purchased in January by Times Mirror.

According to figures from the Council of Governments, publishing and printing was by far the most important manufacturing activity in the region during the first half of this decade. Employment in the publishing and printing industry in the Washington area grew by 25 percent, from 24,000 in 1980 to 30,100 in 1985. In 1976, there were 19,200 jobs in publishing and printing, according to the council.

The job figures include other areas of publishing, such as the book and newspaper industry. The latter includes The Washington Post, the Washington Times, USA Today, several smaller publications like the Washington Blade, Washington Afro-American and Washington Jewish Week, and numerous suburban papers. Gannett Co. Inc. and United Press International are also headquartered in the Washington area.

Revenue, profit and circulation figures for the industry are elusive. Membership periodicals are often funded from dues or corporate contributions. Private publications often refuse to release revenues or profits. Newsletters normally decline to release circulation figures, along with other financial data.

Circulation for highly specialized newsletters can be as low as 100, while a publication like National Geographic has a circulation of 10.76 million. Smithsonian Magazine has a 2.3 million circulation. Changing Times, Kiplinger's magazine on personal finance, has a 1.4 million circulation.

But circulation figures are not necessarily a reflection of success. Some magazines are sent out for free and others are included with membership dues. Insight, a newsweekly started in 1985 by The Washington Times, has a controlled, or free, circulation of more than 1 million, although a Times spokesman said it is switching to paid subscribers.

Smithsonian Magazine is sent to all Smithsonian associates, and Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine -- which was launched a little over a year ago and now has a circulation of 300,000 -- is included in the membership fee of the Air and Space Museum Associates. Membership in both Smithsonian organizations includes travel programs, lectures and book and gift discounts.

Association periodicals go automatically to members and are normally funded by membership dues. Nation's Business, the 75-year-old Chamber of Commerce magazine, has a membership circulation of 784,928, plus individual subscriptions and newsstand sales of 77,482.

Most of Science magazine's 155,000 circulation comes from members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, although a Science editor added that many people join the association simply to get the magazine.

The presence of so many association and think-tank publications makes the Washington publishing scene distinctly different from Chicago and New York, according to Styles. He said that for groups like AEI, making a profit is often not the main reason for publishing. In fact, many nonprofit groups assume they will lose money on publications, Styles said.

However, some association and nonprofit publications have enjoyed financial success. Smithsonian and National Geographic are notable examples.

There are also less visible publications that have turned out to be highly profitable. Henley-Wood Inc., which started out in 1976 as a struggling five-person firm, has grown into a $12 million publishing operation, and the key to its evolution was the membership publication of the National Association of Home Builders.

Hanley-Wood bought Builder magazine in 1981 from the home builders' association. Builder remained the official NAHB membership magazine, but Hanley-Wood redesigned it, merged it with another magazine purchased from McGraw-Hill, and started a big advertising push.

Since then, advertising in Builder has increased from 680 pages to 1,138 pages a year, and from $2.5 million to $10 million in ad revenues.

The company, which two years ago bought another magazine called Remodeling, has been listed in the Inc. 500 listing of the nation's fastest growing, privately held companies for the past four years.

The government has also presented unique financial opportunities to some groups.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, with a circulation of 78,000, benefitted when federal affirmative action legislation required universities to advertise jobs. Most universities chose to run their job ads in the Chronicle, according to editor Corbin Gwaltney.

For National Information Corp. of Alexandria, the opportunity came with the Great Society program. In 1966, the founder took a $700 Christmas bonus and started a newsletter to let local and state agency people know where the poverty program money was scattered throughout the government.

The company, which includes an Alexandria-based subsidiary called Capitol Publications, has grown into a $55 million business with 40 publications, according to Allie Ash, chairman of the board.

The growth in the publishing industry has created a critical core of talent needed to start up and put out new publications, according to several publishers and editors.

"There are more and more resources available all the time ... an increasing number of art directors, production people," said Peter A. Harkness, an executive with Congressional Quarterly. Others add that the pool of available reporters and editors is impressive and growing.

Harkness said the growing talent pool made it easier for Congressional Quarterly to start up its new publication, Governing, scheduled to come out in October.

The magazine is designed to keep state and local governments informed on the trends, issues and personalities of their counterparts across the country, according to Harkness, who left his job as executive editor of GQ magazine to become publisher of Governing.

Governing hopes to attract advertising from industries that deal with state and local governments. The prototype includes ads from waste management companies, municipal bond insurance companies and environmental engineers.

The optimistic predictions for growth in corporate ads are not repeated when the subject is general consumer ads.

Part of the problem, say magazine publishers, is that Washington operates in the shadow of the New York advertising scene, the undisputed heart of the advertising world.

That means Washington is far from the day when it can challenge New York for the general interest, mass-circulation magazines, says New Republic publisher Dearth and others.

In addition, Washington's image as an intellectual policy center seems to shape not only what comes here, but also what doesn't.

For instance, the AARP News Bulletin is based in Washington because that's where the experts, the legislators and the regulators are, said Robert E. Wood, director of the publications division for the American Association of Retired Persons. But Modern Maturity, AARP's magazine, is based in California, not Washington, despite the problems caused by the long-distance division.

Wood explained that Modern Maturity is a "life style magazine ... so it's best to stay outside the Beltway."