Just before Christmas the Daily Spectrum in St. George ran a three-paragraph apology in the business briefs. It said it regretted having run on its news page an article headlined, "Drive hard bargain when buying a car."

To most readers the article in question no doubt appeared to be useful consumer advice. Not so to auto dealers, who are having really rocky times.So despite the apology, dealers in the Spectrum's five-county circulation area of Utah's Dixie pulled their ads out of the paper.

The boycott started when a St. George dealer faxed to other dealers the piece he found offensive. The paper figured the boycott would be over in 90 days, but it continues with only a few defections.

The episode is unusual for these reasons:

The eagerness with which the paper apologized for an article that was accurate and on a topic of legitimate concern to its readers.

The readiness of businesses to join in punishing a paper for running a piece that is less than a business puff.

The sheer unnecessity of open hostilities between dealers and the paper. Their aims can legitimately run parallel. For example, before the boycott the Spectrum was carrying a Friday "Auto Showcase" section, four to six pages of auto news, including dealer profiles. Now it is on hold.

- THE CONSUMER ARTICLE was from the magazine Changing Times by way of the AP Newsfeatures service. One paragraph that ticked off the dealers told prospective buyers, "Prices on 1991 model cars are up 2 to 21/2 percent on average, but you shouldn't have to pay for the increase. In today's market, dealers expect to make a 71/2 percent markup over cost."

Another paragraph said: "Dealership cost figures actually overstate its (an auto's) true cost since a typical 3 percent manufacturer's holdback on domestic cars and other special discounts haven't been subtracted from the figures."

- SPECTRUM PUBLISHER Donald E. Hogun composed the apology himself. (The Spectrum is owned by one of the major newspaper chains, the Thomson group, but Hogun says it makes its own editorial decisions.) In the apology, he wrote that the article "in no way reflected on the auto dealers in the area" and blamed a copy editor for allowing the story to run. And he says, "When you start telling someone they should not make a profit, you have a real problem, especially in a small city."

Rick Harper, a St. George Buick dealer who helped organize the boycott, goes further. He told Editor & Publisher magazine that the article was "tacky" and an "unfair shot." But when I called him to find out why and to ask how he might have responded to it other than a boycott he refused to talk, saying he didn't want to make a big deal of it.

Of course it is a big deal for the Spectrum. Auto ads accounted for more than a quarter of the classified advertising, and their loss would have been a blow even if the ad market were booming.

- IF IT IS TRUE that the article pointed to "things that apply in some places but not here," as the dealer told E&P, the logical step would have been for him to ask the paper to run a clarification of how the local scene differed from what the AP article described as typical nationally. The paper might well have done that on its own initiative as well, rather than abjectly apologize. Hogun says that despite the suggestions that the article was out of sync with the local scene, "nobody complained it was inaccurate, at least not to me; the dealers thought that others shouldn't have the information."

- A SECOND FACTOR in the boycott is the rise in ad rates at the Spectrum, up 6 percent as of Jan. 1. Hogun says the raise is the smallest in five years; he says firmly the paper won't backtrack because "our costs are up just like everyone else's."

Dealers have told him, Hogun says, that they are reassessing the use of their advertising dollars. The Spectrum has direct competition in the St. George-Cedar City area from two small TV stations and five radio stations, a free "shopper" newspaper and weeklies.

Did the Spectrum's readers complain about the apology or congratulate the Spectrum for running what might well have been seen as a gutsy consumer story? "I haven't heard one way or another from anyone except the dealers," Hogun says.

Little papers like the Spectrum (it claims a circulation boost of 900 in the past year, up to 17,178 paid, but has no pretensions of being a metropolitan daily) have a harder time resisting advertising pressures than the metros. The bigger papers aren't reluctant to butter up advertisers, but it is rare that they kowtow to them on editorial decisions. And they can usually ride out an advertiser's getting miffed and pulling the ads. In the long run the advertiser usually needs the paper as much as it needs him.

And while business people may feel they shouldn't subsidize media that carry matter they consider anti-business, they should know that their message benefits by being in publications readers regard as credible and independent.An unusually well-publicized instance of perceived advertiser pressures against a large newspaper arose in 1988 at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. (A visiting Korean editor I talked to the other day brought it up again!)

The episode involved Bill Kovach, who had come two years earlier from the New York Times, where he headed the Washington Bureau. He had disagreements with management over the style of the papers. A major tiff, according to news accounts at the time, was how he treated the business community on the news pages. Businesses frequently carped about stories such as one that focused on banks' discriminatory lending practices, a series disclosing details of a grand jury investigation of the powerful Georgia Power Co., and coverage of Coca-Cola, which is headquartered in Atlanta.

Kovach had been brought in to build the stature of the papers. He is now curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.