In another sign of bearish times in the local economy, Journal Newspapers Inc., the publisher of five daily papers serving Washington's suburbs, yesterday laid off 73 employees because of a decline in advertising revenue.

The cutback amounted to about 8 percent of the newspaper company's employees, and included 27 reporters and editors from among its 170-member editorial staff.

"Everyone, maybe apart from the bankruptcy lawyers, is losing business," Journal publisher Geoffrey Edwards said yesterday. "Any prudent business, if it knows it's not going to have the revenue, has got to reduce its expenses."

Journal Newspapers publishes separate daily editions covering Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and Arlington counties and Alexandria. The newspaper group is owned by the Times Journal Co. of Springfield, which also publishes the weekly Army Times and Navy Times, Defense News and Federal Times, and weekly community papers in the Washington and San Diego areas. The company is closely held by the heirs of its late founder, Melvin Ryder, and has estimated annual revenue of about $100 million.

Advertising at the papers has been down 13 percent in the first nine months of this year compared with 1989, said Edwards. Circulation is down about 1 percent for the five dailies combined, 149,561 as of Sept. 30.

Other local newspapers and broadcast stations have reported weaker sales this year due primarily to a sluggish retail market, softness in auto and real estate sales and gradually rising unemployment. Through the first nine months of 1990, for example, The Washington Post has lost 10 percent of its ad volume, although its weekday circulation has increased by 1 percent.

Despite the growth of the Washington area over the past decade, the circulation of the Journal papers has remained virtually unchanged since 1982. The Journals were converted from twice-weekly to weekday publication in 1981, shortly after the Washington Star folded.

In a series of cost-saving steps imposed since July, the company has eliminated Christmas bonuses, imposed a hiring freeze and moved up editorial deadlines by as much as two hours for some of its editions. The latter step was taken to free up the Journals' presses earlier so that the extra press capacity can be sold to outside customers.

Journal staff members said the dismissals, which were spread throughout the chain, were not surprising in light of the economy, but several people were bitter about the timing. "It's pretty crummy coming right before Christmas," said one editorial employee. "They could have bit the bullet and waited until after the holidays."

One four-year Journal veteran, who asked that his name not be used, said, "It's Christmas and I've got a 7-month-old. I'm a 45-year-old dumpy man and I'm out of a job. I'm speechless."