By Jena Janovy
If you’ve ever needed to know how to dig up documents, get court records or find sports stadium health inspection reports, ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne is your woman. Lavigne, an expert in computer-assisted reporting and statistics, will lead two sessions at the AWSM convention on Friday, June 21: “When a sports story becomes a crime story” and “How to investigate a university.”
Lavigne has reported on subjects such as athletes’ charities, gambling on youth football in South Florida, stadium food safety, the U.S. Open tennis draw, Title IX and college football recruiting. She obtains documents, researches charities, vigorously pursues public records and provides assistance on criminal and civil court coverage. And when ESPN reporters need help investigating a university, doing background checks, digging deeper into story subjects or crunching numbers, they often turn to Lavigne.
“In 2009, when I was working on a story about Sahel Kazemi, the alleged murderer of former NFL star Steve McNair, I was seeking background info on her childhood in Iran, and asked Paula to help,” said ESPN senior writer Elizabeth Merrill. “Before I knew it, we were firing off letters to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Administration for Children and Families. When the months of red tape and back and forth were finally over, and we received minimal information on a bunch of blacked-out documents, I was frustrated. Paula almost seemed energized. She deals with this stuff quite a bit, and enjoys it.
“If you have a pulse and a paper trail, Paula will find you.”
Lavigne, who works from her home office in Omaha, Neb., has been with ESPN since May 2008 as a TV and digital reporter. She works on cross-platform stories for the TV enterprise unit and writes for ESPN.com. Her work appears on “Outside the Lines.” Before joining ESPN, she worked for newspapers in Dallas, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Tacoma, Wash. She also trains reporters and producers on databases and investigative reporting techniques, issuing a regular “Sleuth on the Sidelines” newsletter and running investigative reporting workshops.
She was on the team of reporters and producers nominated for a Sports Emmy Award in 2009 for a story on whether then-Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s on-field progress had led to off-the-field problems and player getting in trouble with the law. For the story, Lavigne researched the number of football players charged with crimes and the number of counts. She won a Gannett Foundation Award for innovation for a story on the safety of sports stadium food in 2011. She was also the reporter on a story that was a finalist for an Investigative Reporters and Editors award in 2012 for exposing rampant high-stakes gambling on youth football in South Florida. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Masters of Business Administration from Creighton University.
“When viewers see Paula’s great investigative work on ‘Outside the Lines,’ they’re getting only about half of what she does at ESPN,” Merrill said. “The rest of it is pretty thankless; doing background checks for reporters, helping someone with a FOIA request. We live in a high-tech age of drones and Siri, yet we have no national database that can give a reporter a criminal background check on a subject, and it’s frustrating. But luckily at ESPN, we have Paula. She knows the ins and outs of how to gather info from each state, and can usually rattle it off the top of her head.”