Among those hit by last week’s layoffs at The News & Observer are the publishers at the company’s community outlets.

Brenda Larson, publisher of The Chapel Hill News and The Cary News, and Eddie Thorndyke, publisher of the Smithfield Herald and Eastern Wake News, were laid off effective June 27 and their positions eliminated. Felicia Gressette, vice president of marketing at the N&O, will take over the publisher’s role at all five of the N&O‘s weekly and bi-weekly community papers.

The cuts came on June 16, the same day the Sacramento-based McClatchy Company, which owns the N&O, announced layoffs at its 30 daily newspapers across the country.

Larson and Thorndyke declined to comment. Gressette insisted the loss of the community publishers would have no perceptible impact.

“I honestly don’t think the readers will notice a thing,” she said. “Publisher is an important job, but the journalism is what really matters about those papers. Don’t you agree? The editors are in place, the reporters are in place, and those newspapers will continue to be the heartbeat of the community, giving information to people they can’t get anywhere else.”

However, at least one of those newspapers has also lost newsroom staff. Chapel Hill News reporter Meiling Arounnarath and longtime news editor Don Evans also were laid off. Gressette declined to comment on specific personnel changes.

The Chapel Hill News is published Wednesdays and Sundays and distributed free to 24,500 households in southern Orange County.

“My reaction to this is real sadness,” said Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is the author of Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local. He’s concerned about how the changes, both at the top and in the newsroom, will affect the community.

“I think it’s pretty specious to say that nobody’s going to notice,” Lauterer said. “Didn’t you just cut your newsroom in half? It just makes my stomach turn to see this happen.”

A former community newspaper publisher, Lauterer frequently travels the state visiting staff at newspapers of less than 50,000 circulation. He said the role of a publisher at a community newspaper is fundamentally different from that of one at a major metro daily, “where the publisher’s job is primarily watching that bottom line.”

“There’s a public service imperative that successful, enlightened publishers of good community papers embrace,” he said. “That person is the face of the newspaper to the community. It’s a very political position. You better be there for the ribbon cuttings.”

Gressette said she will take part in community events, just as her predecessors have done. “I will put a lot of miles on my car getting to know the people in the different places,” she said.

The papers Larson and Thorndyke oversaw have long histories that pre-date ownership by the N&O. The Herald celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. The Chapel Hill News has been published continuously since 1923.

Ironically, those papers might have been able to avoid personnel cuts if they had never been bought by the N&O. Even as the price of gas, the mortgage crisis and the decline of classified advertising revenue have beaten down on media chains like McClatchy, small independent community newspapers have fared well financially.

A February story in Editor & Publisher magazine titled “Small Towns, Big Profits” documented the trend: “While Wall Street analysts predict a future for newspapers in ever more apocalyptic terms, the fact is: Many small-market papers are not just surviving, but thriving.”

Gressette would not say whether that trend extended to the N&O‘s community publications. “We don’t typically discuss financial results of our different products in comparison with each other,” she said.

Lauterer laments that McClatchy’s broader financial difficulties, particularly at its newspapers in Florida and California, are causing cutbacks locally.

“The N&O and Charlotte [Observer] are doing fine, but they’ve got to support the team. That’s the very worst of what corporate newspaper ownership is all about. It seems very much a shame,” he said.

Blogger Ruby Sinreich of said newspapers are shooting themselves in the foot when their local reporting diminishes.

“Increasingly, chain-owned newspapers are moving away from the unique value they had. As a blogger, I’m extremely dependent on local journalists to tell me what’s going on. I don’t get paid to go to meetings and analyze what’s going on, but they do. If all they’re doing is rehashing AP feed, I can already get that on any Web site.”

But she said the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community has benefited from the introduction of a new small-circulation local newspaper, The Carrboro Citizen, which was launched in 2006 by Publisher Robert Dickson and Editor Kirk Ross, a former managing editor at the Independent and former reporter for the Chapel Hill News.

“I think The Carrboro Citizen is a great example of the success storya paper that really focuses on what people need and is definitely hyper-local,” Sinreich said.

Correction (July 10, 2008): Brenda Larson’s name was misspelled.