Without so much as a word of warning to their readers or employees, the Journal Register Co. on Thursday closed three longtime community newspapers in Philadelphia.

Staffers of the Olney Times, News Gleaner and Northeast Breeze were told all three weekly publications were going to be shut down immediately during an impromptu morning meeting, said Stuart London, the News Gleaner's sports editor.

London said publisher J. Wesley Rowe Jr. cited the struggling economy and an unsuccessful attempt by the Journal Register Co. to sell the papers when he delivered the grim news.

Journal Register Co. officials could not be reached for comment yesterday on the decision to close the papers.

Employees were aware of the Yardley, Pa.-based newspaper company's larger financial struggles. A month ago, the company - saddled with $650 million in debt and a forbearance agreement with its lenders - announced it would shutter two of its papers in Connecticut if buyers don't emerge by Jan. 12.

Still, Thursday's announcement of the Philadelphia closures came as a shock. No one realized the papers had been for sale or in danger of perishing.

"There had been rumblings and grumblings, but you didn't think it would happen now, particularly with the the Christmas holidays approaching," London said.

"The suddenness of it was stunning. There was no farewell edition or anything on the Web site. We cleaned out our desks and left in two hours."

The News Gleaner, headquartered on Gantry Road near Red Lion Road, has covered the Northeast Philadelphia community since 1882.

London noted that the three papers got by with a staff of just four full-time editorial employees, who also worked on Life, a monthly publication.

They covered the issues, large and small, that readers of each of publications needed to know about.

"We had four people putting out 16 separate editions every month," he said.

"We were still getting awards and being recognized for the work we did. I don't know what we could have done to prevent this."

Many local residents were saddened by the unexpected news.

"I'm just shocked to hear this," said Marty Bednarek, a lifelong Northeast Philadelphia resident and a member of the School Reform Commission. "There's going to be a real void now. You looked forward to your local community paper every week."

"If people knew they were up for sale, maybe some local folks could have come together a saved it. They provide a service that people don't do any more." *