The March issue of Utah Holiday magazine now on the stands is the last for the magazine's founder, Robert J. Coles. The new owners, Tuesday Publishing, and Coles have parted company, largely as an economic move. The separation is significant, for Bob Coles was the magazine's guiding spirit in all but its last year. Its survival for 17 years was as much as anything a matter of his will.

Coles' departure follows the exit of his editor and friend and former LDS missionary companion (in Sweden) Paul Swenson, who bailed out abruptly last April. That was four months after Coles sold the financially ailing magazine to Golden Wood Inc., whose principals are Ladd Christensen and Jeff Jonas. Swenson left the day the new owners fired his managing editor, Barbara Bannon, for reasons Swenson never found satisfactorily explained. Swenson had increasingly chafed under what he considered the new management's timidity and veto of articles he was pushing.Then last June, Cedar City publishing partners Bruce Lee and Jeff Ray bought the magazine. They specialized in small magazines, among them the Sky West in-flight bimonthly. Coles was retained as associate publisher and editor. Lee became president and editorial director.

Now the magazine must try to get its footing without either Coles' multidimensional experience or Swenson's editorial smarts.

Swenson is an enormously talented writer and editor and a bold and perceptive social critic. Perhaps more important, he was a great developer of the talented but low-paid stable of free-lance writers on which the magazine relies. He gave the magazine its guts, polish and irreverent pizzazz.

- BUT LEE FIGURES he and Ray have the special knowledge to make the magazine succeed in a cut-throat media environment. He intends to run an even tighter operation. He already has introduced some economies, like desk-top computer typesetting. "We know how to run a magazine on a slim budget."

The new owners are shooting for a circulation of 25,000, which Utah Holiday never attained. Currently it has, Lee says, about 15,000 by subscription and newsstand sales. Coles had once hoped for 60,000, roughly the number of Utah subscribers to the four major news magazines. But the magazine has been losing circulation, and the slide the past year has been on the order of 10 percent. Advertising also has lagged. A typical March issue once ran 100 pages; the current one is 64.

To succeed, the new owners will have to do more than economize. They will have to get and keep the kind of readership that will intrigue advertisers.

After Swenson left, Coles admits, the first few issues were bland. Coles feels better about those that have appeared since November.

I found the March issue less visually grabbing than what the magazine once delivered but a good read, almost vintage Utah Holiday. It features an investigative article by Lynn Packer about a penny stock sting and a piece on cosmetic surgery by Marianne Harding Burgoyne that, if it broke no new ground, was solid and interesting.

Lee says he wants to build on Utah Holiday's deserved reputation for analytical and investigative reporting. He wants to introduce some new editorial ideas, like more "people-oriented" stories, though Utah Holiday always was strong on profiling celebrities like Debbi and Randy Fields and Robert Redford.

Utah Holiday always was on financial thin ice even though it gave readers things they weren't getting elsewhere. It did the definitive articles on topics like Ted Bundy, the AFCO investment scandal, the collapse of Murray First Thrift, polygamy, the Khashoggis and Ted Cannon.

The magazine's recent slide may have less to do with the soft advertising market than with the fact the newspapers are doing more of what Utah Holiday always did especially well.

When Utah Holiday started, the newspapers weren't doing enough digging stories or much sophisticated reviewing of the movies and the other arts, much less of media, restaurants and architecture. Most of these voids have been filled. Some Utah Holiday alumni, like Dorothy Stowe, Elaine Jarvik and restaurant reviewer Al Church, have found their way to the papers. Newspaper writing here, once terribly pedestrian, suffers less by comparison with magazine writing now than a couple of decades ago, is less stilted, more candid and crisper.

- SWENSON HAS BEEN planning and drumming up support for another city magazine venture here. He is undaunted by all the starvation days at Utah Holiday (it was two years after the founding before either Swenson or Coles took a paycheck) or competition from the papers or Utah Holiday itself. He hopes to have it out "within months."

Swenson always believed in the magazine as the showcase for good writing and digging. He says, "A really innovative city-regional magazine that has a lot of momentum going when it hits the ground could raise enough excitement to keep it going."

A head-to-head battle for the sophisticated reader between Swenson's new magazine and Utah Holiday ought to be exciting, though the odds of both succeeding aren't high.