A report yesterday quoted Mortimer Zuckerman on U.S. News & World Report's decision not to delay its presses last Sunday for coverage of the presidential debate. Zuckerman added yesterday that he is not yet the magazine's publisher and that he did not know of or participate in the decision. He pointed out that he had told the reporter to call Marvin Stone, the editor. Stone's secretary originally had referred the reporter to Zuckerman. Stone did not return the call.

The timing couldn't have been worse.

The presidential debate, the news event of the week, didn't wind up until 10:40 Sunday night, only a few hours after the first deadline for most of the nation's newspapers, but a full 24 hours after Time and Newsweek are normally put to sleep, and 48 hours after U.S. News and World Report.

"Would I have liked it to be on another night?" said Ray Cave, managing editor for Time. "Absolutely."

But by Monday noon, Newsweek's full press run of three million magazines were on their way -- only five hours late -- with the most comprehensive debate coverage of the three: a cover that asked "Who Won?" and seven inside pages that included live pictures, a main news story, a Gallup poll on the opinions of readers, a feature entitled "How the Experts See It," a column by Meg Greenfield and a family-in-front-of-the-television story. Estimated additional cost: $100,000.

The staff went home at 4 a.m.

Time did its cover on "Crackdown on the Mafia," but also included a "cover flap" on the debate. The magazine started the presses using a general debate story, but updated it and made 63 percent of their 4.7 million press run with some coverage from the actual debate. Estimated additional cost: about $25,000. Its staff also worked into Monday morning.

U.S. News and World Report chose not to delay its presses and so did not include the debate in this week's issue.

Covering a Sunday night event requires a major editorial decision by the magazines and could cost them anywhere from $100,000 to $750,000 for delaying publication. It also raises the question of whether holding up the presses really services the reader and increases circulation commensurate with the cost.

"We didn't think it was necessary to hold up production," said Mortimer Zuckerman, the new publisher of U.S. News. "We might very well hold the press run for another story . . . We think it works out better this way. We can give a reader a better assessment in a week."

Says Robert Farley, vice-president of the Magazine Publishers Association, "There are both journalistic image considerations as well as business judgments that goes into the decision. Obviously, it is helpful to have the most updated information on the covers."

According to Cave, Time made its decision not to do a cover or expanded coverage for reasons similar to those of U.S. News and World Report.

"The issue that the editor must decide is to what degree we disservice the reader by delaying 24 hours, measured up against what we are giving them to read," Cave said. "We could have given the reader very little of what they couldn't get in the newspapers, so you are not servicing them . . . It was my decision that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages."

Time did, however, have a cover featuring the two candidates head-to-head ready at their nine printing plants in case "there was a major faux pas," says Cave. "We didn't think that happened."

Cave said that this issue's delay was considerably less costly than the delay following last year's bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which also occurred on a Sunday, because the magazine could plan for the debate. "I had to create space for that story," he said.

Newsweek decided as soon as the debate was announced that it would be the cover. Their political correspondents were cued to file immediately after the debate, and the Gallup Organization, which conducted its poll, could phone for hours by moving west across time zones.

"It took an enormous amount of planning," said Maynard Parker, editor of Newsweek. "Ever since the Kennedy/Nixon race, the debates have been one of the turning points in the race. It is essential for the reader to have the news on a timely basis."

But after the magazines go through the list of all the ways they should service the readers, there is always one more reason to force the presses, which Newsweek editor-in-chief Richard Smith summed up in a memo to the troops yesterday:

"If there are any doubts about our success, look at the competition," he wrote. "We left them dead in the water."