At 22, Portsmouth High, RWU grad started at the top

Jordan Phelan’s first full-time newspaper job? Managing editor

By Jim McGaw
Posted 1/24/20

PORTSMOUTH — Like with any other job, you have to pay your dues before they make you managing editor of a newspaper.

You may start out typing in letters or engagements, or being assigned the …

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At 22, Portsmouth High, RWU grad started at the top

Jordan Phelan’s first full-time newspaper job? Managing editor

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Like with any other job, you have to pay your dues before they make you managing editor of a newspaper.

You may start out typing in letters or engagements, or being assigned the dreaded “man on the street” interview. If an editor takes pity on you and thinks you can handle it, you might get assigned to cover the water board or planning board — maybe even a school committee meeting. 

After that, if you’re still around, you may be asked to find an interesting issue or a local person to cover for a feature story. And after a few years of that, unless you’ve been poached by a competing paper or a public relations firm, you may get to be editor. A few years later, maybe managing editor.

Jordan Phelan, however, skipped over a whole bunch of stepping stones to get to where he is today.

At the tender age of 22, the 2015 graduate of Portsmouth High School is already the managing editor of The Eagle Times, a daily in Claremont, N.H. with 4,000 subscribers that covers the Connecticut River Valley area.

He’s the youngest person in the newsroom, and it’s his first full-time newspaper job.

Mr. Phelan graduated from Roger Williams University in May 2019 but started sending out résumés long before that.

“I started applying for jobs in September or October of 2018, and nothing really stuck,” he said. “I wanted to be the person who got the job when he got the diploma, but it didn’t work out.”

A few weeks after that, however, he got a part-time job at The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript in Peterborough, N.H. He was there for about three weeks when he saw an ad for a position at The Eagle Times.

“‘Managing editor’ is a big title, but when I looked at all the requirements, I had all that,” Mr. Phelan said.

His interview went well. “We were really focused on local journalism and keeping that alive. We shared that vision,” he said.

In October 2019 he joined a leadership team led by publisher Mike Gonyaw, who himself started working at the paper only three months earlier. 

“Jordan is obviously very young, but he’s very well-spoken, gives very thoughtful answers to questions,” Mr. Gonyaw stated in a recent article published by The Rutland Herald, a Vermont paper that’s owned, along with The Eagle Times, by Sample New Group. “He’s a listener, and I believe listening is a very important skill to have. He’s highly organized, highly intelligent and understands the role of a local daily newspaper.”

Humble beginnings

Mr. Phelan said he became interested in writing and telling stories at a young age.

“I’ve known I wanted to do writing since I was 8 years old, when I saved a Boston Globe clipping of Red Sox winning the World Series,” he said.

He took four years of journalism classes at Portsmouth High School with teacher Sandy Oxx. Although he tinkered with going into civil engineering, he switched to a journalism major during his freshman year at Roger Williams.

“The journalism program there deserves more attention and more funding,” he said. Two professors at RWU molded him into the journalist he is today, he said: Associate Professor of Communication Dr. Paola Prado, and former Director of Media and Public Relations Edward Fitzpatrick, a former Providence Journal reporter who’s now at the Boston Globe.

He moved to New Hampshire because his fiancée and fellow RWU graduate, Sadie Jane Collagan, is a Doctor of Psychology student at Antioch University New England in Keene. She’s also a clinical practicum student at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

Not just a desk job

Despite his lofty title, Mr. Phelan isn’t just checking copy and pushing papers around his desk. 

“I’m a writing editor. I write one or two pieces every day,” he said, adding there are two other reporters helping him churn out copy on a daily basis.

He and his boss, however, have big plans for restructuring the paper. 

“The publisher and I had a two-hour meeting a week ago about what we see the paper becoming going forward and what we can change to make it better,” he said. Some of those improvements will focus on design changes and beefed-up local coverage, he said. 

“There’s a lot coming, but it’s a slow rollout.”

The Eagle Times fell on hard times a little over a decade ago. It closed in July 2009 after declaring bankruptcy, but it resumed publication three months later under new ownership.

“We’ve gone through several publishers since then,” he said. “The paper is looking better than it did a decade ago.”

Similar to Fall River

Mr. Phelan compares the area in which he works to another city not far from Portsmouth.

“Claremont and this whole area is very similar to Fall River,” he said. “It once had a lively downtown area with lots of manufacturing jobs. Now it’s all about restoring and repurposing those old mils. A lot of our stories have to do with repurposing those old buildings.”

As for one of the more interesting articles the paper has published since his arrival, Mr. Phelan pointed to reporter Patrick Adrian’s October 2019 piece, “Local country musician puts a 'spark' in old history.” It tells the tragic backstory of Nashville-by-way-of-Vermont country singer Ben Fuller’s song “Spark,” which focuses on Ascutney, Vt. dairy farmer Romaine Tenney.

Mr. Tenney was a “bachelor farmer” who lived nearly his entire life on a family-owned farm that sat in the path of the proposed Interstate 91 in the 1960s. He was ordered to vacate by the state and offered a compensation  of $13,600. 

According to the Times’ story, no amount of money could replace Mr. Tenney’s land, however. He threatened to burn his place down, but no one believed him. Shortly after midnight on Sept. 12, 1964, however, he barricaded himself inside his farmhouse and set it on fire, killing himself in the process.

“Now there’s this whole debate in Vermont about this last maple tree on his former land,” said Mr. Phelan, noting that the tree is intended to memorialize Mr. Tenney’s life. “The state wants to remove it because it could cause damage to a park-and-ride next to it.” 

Mr. Phelan himself got to interview Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren last October. “She came to Newport, New Hampshire, which is one of the more conservative parts of the state — Trump signs everywhere,” he said. Ms. Warren took eight questions from Mr. Phelan and Mr. Adrian during a 15-minute sit-down, which he said included some heartfelt remarks about Elijah Cummings, the civil rights advocate and Maryland congressman who had died only three days earlier.

Facing challenges

Although his quick rise in the newsroom may be evidence of a charmed life, Mr. Phelan is well aware of the challenges facing newspapers today.

“A lot of people say print journalism is dead or dying, but I don’t believe that it is,” he said. “It’s kind of going through what my paper is going through — a restructuring, to find out what the people really want. It’s about paying attention to what the community both wants, and needs.”

At The Eagle Times, he’s still trying to figure out what that is.

“There are mistakes being made, but we’re trying to fix them. Success doesn’t stop at challenges, it starts at challenges,” he said.

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