Boston — As Saturday Review magazine wrote what may be the last chapter of its 58-year history Aug. 16, editors and readers continued to ponder the demise of one of the nation's outstanding general-interest periodicals.
The immediate difficulties were financial. In a statement announcing that he was suspending publication ''with the greatest regret,'' owner Robert I. Weingarten referred to financial troubles that began when the magazine declared bankruptcy in 1973.
SR, as it was known, had been losing $1 million a year since Mr. Weingarten purchased it in 1980, although it had 480,000 subscribers for its latest (June) issue. But many subscriptions, says editor Stephen B. Shepard, were sold at a discount through wholesale houses.
The underlying reasons for the failure are more complicated. SR had reached its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s as a general-interest periodical with a leaning toward world affairs. But it started in 1924 as a literary magazine with an academic tilt. Under Mr. Shepard, who left Newsweek to become its editor a year ago, it was moving back toward its roots in literature and the arts, but with a more journalistic flavor.
''We really were creating a new magazine,'' says Shepard, ''and we had to tell the world about it.'' But the magazine, in business terms, was undercapitalized: Though its advertising revenue was holding steady, it could not find the money to promote itself, Shepard says.
The troubles began when the SR was purchased in 1971 by Nicholas H. Charney and John J. Veronis, who founded Psychology Today. Shortly after the purchase, SR editor Norman Cousins, who had presided over the magazine's growing reputation since 1939, quit in a disagreement over the SR's future. The new owners subsequently moved the weekly to San Francisco and divided it into four separate ''Saturday Review'' magazines dealing with science, education, society, and the arts. The venture collapsed in 1973, losing $17 million for investors and owing $12 million to creditors.
''They decided to go for broke when they were in fact broke,'' says Robert Cowley, an editor at Random House who was editor of the SR's weekly edition when it was moved to California. He says the magazine, once it turned away from literature and ''capital-C culture,'' never recouped its losses.
Mr. Cousins subsequently purchased SR and joined it with his own magazine, World. In 1977 he sold it to Carll Tucker, former drama critic of The Village Voice. But in 1980, SR was one of three troubled cultural magazine giants up for sale. Harper's, after losing $1.5 million, was sold to several foundations. The Atlantic Monthly was sold to Boston real-estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman, who says it will become profitable soon. And SR was sold to Weingarten, whose company, Macro Communications, also owns Financial World.
Is the collapse of the SR -- whose employees technically have been ''furloughed,'' though insiders don't expect it to find a new buyer -- symptomatic of problems in the magazine industry? No, says Kent Rhodes, president of the Magazine Publisher's Association.
Magazine circulation in America now numbers 286 million copies per issue, he says - nearly double the 1950 figure, although in that time the adult population has grown only 53 percent. Magazine advertising revenue has steadily increased, to more than $3 billion a year.
''There's no discernible trend as to the kinds of magazines that are dying and surviving,'' he says. And while most new magazines have been aimed at special-interest groups, familiar names like National Geographic (with nearly 10 million readers) are still going strong.