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May 24, 2016updated 25 May 2016 6:43pm

Croydon Advertiser’s Gareth Davies on picking up four Regional Press Awards and winning his harassment battle with the Met Police

By Freddy Mayhew

The Croydon Advertiser’s Gareth Davies is usually behind the headlines, but he’s found himself in them again after winning a two-year battle with the Met over a harassment warning and claiming his fourth Weekly Reporter of the Year title at the Regional Press Awards.

The 31-year-old chief reporter tells Press Gazette of his reaction to learning of the Met’s decision to drop the “prevention of harassment” notice against him, saying it was “about much more than just me”, and reveals he still cares “a depressingly large amount” about the Regional Press Awards despite winning three years in a row.

Davies, who joined the Advertiser eight years ago as a trainee reporter in his first journalism role, also talks about his award-winning work ethic (“I’m never really off duty”) and why he’s staying put on local newspapers for the time being.

Press Gazette: How do you feel about winning again this year? Does it still register?

Gareth Davies: I care a depressingly large amount about it, just because you don’t really get that much chance as a journalist to be recognised and most of the people who run the companies aren’t really that interested in the individual achievements. They want to see the hits on the website, the number of papers being sold but they’re not that keen on saying ‘well done’.

PG: How do you get your stories?

GD: I think it’s just hard work. I’ve got a very understanding partner with a young child who doesn’t mind and puts up with the fact that I come home and work until 11.30pm.

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Speaking generally, the difference between a good journalist and an ok journalist is the good journalist is the person who’s willing to put in the time and effort. Sometimes the really good stories take time and effort and you’ve got to commit yourself to going the extra mile. You’ve got to ask that extra question, you’ve got to not let something go when you might otherwise think maybe the story’s dead or I’m not getting where I need to go with it. Just keep asking, that’s the difference I guess.

Also what I’m also finding is by doing the basics right on stories I did two or three years ago, it’s paying off now. You get put in touch with people who say I’ve been given your mobile number by this person because you did this story [earlier]. I’m getting better stories now than I maybe did four years ago because I did the basic stuff and did the job right then.

And just to make a small point: so many journalists on weeklies move on so quickly that maybe that’s why they don’t get those stories they want. Because they’re so desperate to go to a national newspaper that they don’t have that base. I’m at an advantage to some other people in the category because maybe they haven’t been at their newspaper for very long and the thing that breeds good stories is good stories.

PG: Are you often working late?

GD: I don’t ever stay late in the office but I’m working at home all the time. I’m never really off duty. I think that’s the difference. Even now, when I’ve got a kid that’s only eight months old, if someone rings me or texts me at two or three in the morning I’m still going to get up and do it, because I just love doing it.

This is an amazing job. Despite all that stuff that gets thrown at us, all the ways in which the industry puts barriers in the way of doing the job, at the end of the day we’re getting paid to talk to someone and write a story down – and who really gets to do that? No matter how much things get you down, you think actually, at the end of the day, this is an amazing job to do.

I still haven’t lost that love of the job that I had when I first arrived. I still want to see my name in the front of the paper so that’s what drives me on. I feel competition, even if it’s just with myself. If I don’t get a good story one week, I feel really down. Even if I’ve had a good week the previous week I feel like I’ve not done myself any justice. I always live on the last paper.

PG: Are you given a free rein?

GD: Probably the advantage I have over some other people in the positions is that because I have the experience and they know they can trust me, I’m given a bit more time and leeway [on stories].

I am probably a bit of a pain in the arse as a person because I’m quite exacting and I really care about the paper. But people won’t mind me filing some other things a bit later than other things. At the end of the day they know that I’m going to produce something, so they trust me.

But it’s not that that makes me better than other people, they just haven’t reached that point yet because so many people in journalism are so young and they haven’t had that experience and they want to jump straight on to nationals so they don’t stay at weeklies to do the basics.

PG: Have you thought about moving on to a national paper?

GD: I think there would be certain jobs I would be interested in, although I would find it difficult to shift because of my family situation.

I really enjoy the local journalism side. I like being involved in the local community on a day-to-day basis and building up contacts and not seeing my work twisted. I could write stuff and probably quite legitimately an editor on a national newspaper might just change it to be the angle they want to see. That’s not for me I don’t think.

People outside the industry still see it as a be-all and end-all, they ask me ‘why aren’t you going to a national? Why aren’t you doing this, why aren’t you doing that?’. I’m really happy doing what I am. I really just genuinely love local journalism.

I really do think that the large majority of the best journalism that’s done in the country is done by local and regional papers. I think some of the good stuff done in nationals is taken from local journalism. I’m not saying they don’t do good journalism, of course they do, but the way you do good journalism is by getting really involved and having links with people and that happens more at a local level and less at a national level.

PG: The police harassment warning has been over your head for two years. Had you been worrying about it and how do you feel now it’s been lifted?

GD: I’m not going to say that I couldn’t stop thinking about it but it became more of a principle thing. It was about much more than just me. It was about the fact that this was open to anyone who really wants to use it to block journalism, if this was the way the Met was going to view these things.

I thought it would have been overturned by the complaint I made to the police, it wasn’t. I thought the IPCC would overturn it, they didn’t. I thought that when we made it clear that we were going to take legal action they might see sense, they didn’t. I thought when we got to the position that the judge said the case was arguable they might do something, they didn’t. And I really thought we would end up in court, but thankfully the Met saw sense.

The most important thing is that they said they were going to write to the College of Policing. I think that’s a tacit acknowledgement that they were wrong. I think they probably were working within the rules as they were – wrong in the sense that when they thought about it they realised actually it doesn’t make sense.

Surely if anyone makes an allegation like that there should be some form of investigation but there wasn’t. It’s crazy, members of the public are still going to be facing this every day, which is nuts.

I’m just relieved it’s in the past, but you have to keep on at the Met to live up to what they say. I haven’t received a letter that it’s been cancelled. I haven’t seen the proof that they’ve written to the College of Policing. I think the main thing is to keep on to them now and make sure they actually do it, because it’s very easy to say.

It’s just a shame they had to spend tens of thousands of pounds of public money to get to this point when it could have just been free and a little analytical thought at the start might have avoided it all.

PG: Do we need to treat our talent better on the regional press? Do we need to pay more to our best and brightest journalists?

GD: One hundred per cent we have to do more as an industry, especially if we want to keep the best people, if we want to keep the people who go out there and win awards – but not just that, who actually do really good journalism. But I’m not sure how much the people who make the decisions are actually that bothered about it.

But for instance, Trinity Mirror has started talking about engagement, instead of page views. So how long people stay on the stories and they’ve suddenly started talking about having longer stories, more in depth stuff. If they really move to that then they will need proper journalists.

PG: Have you struggled with low wages?

GD: My salary for an area like Croydon, or anywhere in London, is very difficult. And I’m lucky because over the last few years the newspaper has recognised that I’ve been doing well and because I’m in a senior position my pay is a bit more, but I really feel for some of the trainees on the paper.

They live in outer London in an area that’s growing. I mean it’s cheap for London but it’s really expensive compared to other areas. I started on fourteen-and-a-half grand. Some of them are on fifteen or sixteen grand. That’s more than half their income on rent and then they’re just expected to go above and beyond with no incentive.

They see advertising departments get bonuses and get targets set and really the people keeping the local papers together are the trainee reporters, more often than not, and they’re not given a lot of incentive other than a love of the job.

I think that newspapers for ages have taken advantage of the fact that we do a job that we love and will kind of put up with it. I wish it would change but I just don’t think it’s going to.

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