Paula Lavigne of ESPN's Outside The Lines.
Paula Lavigne of ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

Paula Lavigne’s road to ESPN was long, winding — and included a bike lane.

After starting at the News-Press in St. Joseph, Missouri, she later worked in Tacoma, Washington; and Des Moines, Iowa, before a lengthy stint at the Dallas Morning News, where she handled computer-assisted reporting as well as a weekly column on cycling. (Here’s a link to her cycling page.)

Those two passions — sports and watchdog reporting — found a confluence at ESPN, where she’s now a computer-assisted reporting analyst, working in television, radio and online. Her work digs deep into issues like the recent Baylor football scandal (see video at bottom).

Lavigne will be speaking at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference that starts June 16 in New Orleans, taking part in a “Watchdogging Sports” panel with Tampa Bay TV reporter Noah Pransky and Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

GateHouseNewsroom.com had a chance to catch up with Lavigne before her time in the Big Easy.

GHN: A former colleague of yours at ESPN suggested a few years back that investigative sports journalism focuses too squarely on the “bad athletes” and not enough on the structure put in place that produces some of these scenarios. Do you think that’s true?

Lavigne: I wouldn’t say “too squarely” because you obviously have to report crimes and wrongdoing when they happen. But it is wise to strive to go deeper on this issue. I’ve often wanted to do stories about how we got to this point with so many athletes falling into criminal behavior. There’s a strong narrative on how young men become professional athletes. A great deal of that comes from the environments in which they grow up and the life-skills education they receive – or don’t receive – to cope with being in such different surroundings.

GHN: Unlike professional sports, many of the country’s major college teams are based in small- to mid-sized cities (Stillwater, Tallahassee, South Bend, Corvallis). With the recent Baylor scandal barely in the rearview mirror, what methods would you suggest when dealing with authorities in cities this size that might be different than those in bigger metropolitan markets? And can you give us some suggestions of sources you use to corroborate claims (especially in these smaller markets)?

Lavigne: I don’t know that the methods would be different. I think there is an assumption, and there is some truth to this, that in small towns the local police and campus police and/or school officials have a closer relationship because the college is really the only thing in town. When you think about the relationship between Waco police to Baylor versus the relationship between Seattle police to University of Washington, it’s certainly a different scale. But I don’t believe there are absolutes. I remember specifically the Stillwater police taking a very firm stance – at least in interviews – about purposefully drawing a line between them and OSU. The sources might be easier to find in small college towns, but the type of sources are generally the same.

GHN: Getting sources in a place as transient as a college campus can be difficult, since the landscape is ever-changing and those who remain are often vehemently protective of their turf. Do you have any tips for those trying to build (and maintain sources) in such a setting?

Lavigne: Actually, there’s a benefit to that. Whether it’s a college, league or company, people who used to work there are often valuable sources. So a place with a lot of turnover has a lot of people willing to talk who aren’t going to be in fear for their job. I know our beat reporters do a great job of building and maintaining sources by staying in contact, doing frequent stories and follow up, and being physically present when they can.

GHN: Bonus question — according to the internet (and everything’s true there!), you spent time in Ireland during your college years. Any suggestions for those who’ve never been?

Lavigne: Spend time in Northern Ireland. It has beautiful landscape and shoreline. The history of the strife between the IRA and the loyalist groups is fascinating and actually ongoing. It’s been years since I’ve been there, but I know you could once take tours of some of the more memorable sites marking the sectarian violence. But despite that history and resulting reputation, it’s a safe and enjoyable place to travel that is often unfortunately overlooked. Belfast is a lovely and vibrant city, and make sure you also check out Giant’s Causeway.

(And here’s footage from Lavigne recently appearing on Outside the Lines, discussing former Baylor University President Ken Starr.)

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