Sheahan looks to a brave new world in journalism

Mike Sheahan. Picture: Herald Sun

Leading sports journalist Mike Sheahan, in a lively Q&A session with Monash journalism students, predicts the inevitable rise of digital journalism over print. He also offers his 12 commandments for young journalists. 


A new era is coming in journalism, says Mike Sheahan, one of the legends of contemporary sports reporting in Victoria.

Although now a TV presenter on popular AFL talk shows such as On the Couch, Open Mike and Talking Footy, Sheahan’s long professional background is in print, but he was not hesitant to speak of its demise in the face of the digital age.

“My guess is that The Age as a hardcopy Monday to Friday [newspaper] will be gone within three years, selling only about 120,000 to 130,000 copies a day,” predicts Sheahan. “The Herald Sun will probably have a spike, because a lot of people do like having newspapers, but it’s clearly the digital age and I think they [newspapers] are probably all doomed.”

But the ushering in of digital has also put pressure on quality – copy is not as clean and crisp as it should be, Sheahan warns. “It’s much easier to get away with something in digital, because it’s just on your screen and it’s gone, but print stays forever, so the safety net is not what it used to be.”

Having written for both The Age and the Herald Sun, Sheahan reflected on his own difficulties transitioning into writing for the digital age.

“When you get to my age, your nerve becomes a bit frayed,” admits Sheahan, talking about  his move from writing to presenting on TV.

The pressure of having to upload every story as quick as possible is  a worrying factor for online journalists. Print media offers more flexibility with time, he says, ensuring greater accuracy before stories are printed the next day.

Digital media seems to be a game for the digital generation and this is reflected by the interests of young people. “Technological changes happen every minute of the day; you guys won’t be aiming for newspapers like we did, because they were the attraction at the time,” says Sheahan.

Sheahan  believes the public decline in interest in newspapers is the spillover effect of the digital age.  “There are so many people who have got their headphones on, listening to music, presumably. When I was growing up, even later than that, most people on the trains would have a book or paper.”

Sheahan recounts a particular train ride a few weeks ago. None of the 63 passengers he counted going from Camberwell to the city were reading either a book or a newspaper.

“For me it was sort of emotional to just think how could people have turned their backs on newspapers like that,”  he says.

“But that’s the reality of it. It’s no good for me to say, ‘come buy a newspaper cause you’ll love it’, people have already made a choice. But it is really disturbing the way newspapers have gone.”

Recounting his first big break, things certainly do not seem as easy as they used to be. Sheahan says  he was introduced to the owner of the new local paper in Werribee by his best mate at school. He got they job and worked there for the next five years.

And for Sheahan, hard copy is still the best.

“I love the feel of newspapers; my ideal time would be to have three hours – three hours is probably not long enough – and just sit there and read them and fold the paper. I’ve grown up doing that.”

Mike Sheahan’s 12 Commandments for Journalists 

1      Don’t guess, ever. If in doubt, leave it out. Hoping something is correct won’t make it correct and it is a poor defence when you are proved wrong

2      Read your story one last time, then again before sending. Finding one significant mistake a year makes it all worthwhile

3      Suggest a heading for your story. That way, at least the subs knows what you believe the story to be about

4      Always make one last call. The more ingredients you have, the better the product

5      Never fashion quotes. What appears in quotation marks must be verbatim, bad grammar included. Trim but don’t correct. If you can’t quote verbatim, paraphrase

6     Know your subject. Read the papers every day

7    Ring the subject sooner rather than later. You’re going to have to do it at some point. Much better to have it in hand than missing the person

8    Don’t waste people’s time. Do not ring busy people and ask them how they are and what’s doing. You’re ringing them for information and answers

9      Bleed when you get something wrong, as you inevitably will. Be embarrassed. It will ensure you get fewer things wrong in the future

10   Read the good journos, read them like your reading a textbook. Absorb, learn

11    Use the library. The world is at your disposal online. If you need help, go to the trouble of asking for it

12    Don’t be bullied. If the story doesn’t come up to what the news editor or chief of staff wants, tell them it doesn’t stack up. You damage the reputation of the newspaper – and yourself – with stories that are seen to be incorrect.