Melody Gutierrez shows retired boxer Milford Kemp a picture of one of his bouts that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1986. Kemp's friend John Drager looks on. Photo credit to Los Angeles Times staff photographer Robert Gauthier.
June 3, 2024

How Melody Gutierrez changed lives through investigative reporting

Sabrina McClain

From making a dollar per inch working for her local newspaper as an adolescent to becoming an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) award winner for the Los Angeles Times, Melody Gutierrez has proven that perseverance can lead to change—not just in her life, but in the lives of others.

Gutierrez’s investigation series “On the ropes” details issues with the California Professional Boxer’s Pension Fund. Although California is the only state with a pension fund for retired boxers, Gutierrez’s reporting showed that many boxers had no idea a pension even existed for them. Some of the boxers she met were near homeless, with no knowledge that there was money waiting for them, untouched and losing value as the years passed.

“That part was just really difficult to kind of understand,” Gutierrez said. “If I could find (someone) as an investigative reporter, this state with its resources could have found him.”

The hurdles Gutierrez faced in her investigation were numerous but that did not deter her. From issues obtaining information through public records requests, to finding the boxers, to making sure her data was accurate—clearly, Gutierrez had her work cut out for her.

She said her research indicated that only 6% of pensions were paid to qualifying boxers in 2022. She said she interviewed around 55 boxers, some easier to locate than thers.

Gutierrez went as far as reaching out to local radio stations in Canada to find one boxer she knew lived there and putting out appeals to find out if anyone had seen him. When she found him, he had little furniture and relied on friends for clothes.

After about a year of reporting, Gutierrez’s initial goal changed from analyzing the percentage of boxers who received pensions to seeing how their lives had been affected. 

“It became trying to get through (to) as many boxers and reach as many as them as possible for their reaction,” Gutierrez said. “Hearing how many people have used that money and how much they needed it made this story even more important to me.”

Gutierrez’s investigation won her the Sports Investigations IRE Award in 2023.

“Winning an award from such a prestigious organization in this particular category meant a lot to me,” Gutierrez said. “Since I got into journalism to be a sports reporter and love investigations … to have this particular category and a story that (brought) actual change, had people benefiting from the investigation, that’s what meant the most to me.”

Gutierrez grew up in Wonder Valley, Calif., a town with a population of roughly 615.  She was an athlete from a young age and enjoyed writing, which planted the first seed of her career path. 

Gutierrez joined the eighth grade school paper and in high school received a job as a sports assignment reporter for her local newspaper, covering any sport she wasn’t playing. Once she arrived at Chico State, she still loved sports journalism but doing investigative work piqued her interest as well.

“I had actually thought of my dream job being more of a sports investigative reporter,” Gutierrez said. “Or covering the business side of sports. I thought arena deals were fascinating and loved player profiles as well.”

Gutierrez said she finds there isn’t much difference between investigative journalism and sports journalism. “A good story is a good story,” she said. “Ensuring that you can write in a way that takes those findings and makes it digestible, that’s just part of being a good journalist.”

Coming from a low-income family, Gutierrez was worried about the transition from a state school to an internship. But she said being accepted into the Sports Journalism Institute as a sophomore in college changed everything.

She remembers jumping up in the middle of Chico State’s newsroom when she received the email and feeling elated that her internship was with the Houston Chronicle.

“Creating a community for news reporters is incredible,” Gutierrez said. “Giving them that resource is incredibly important … you really can take your career anywhere after that.”  

After interning with the Chronicle, she became a sports reporter at the Sacramento Bee before covering education and then becoming a legislative reporter. Gutierrez worked at the San Francisco Chronicle covering politics and then made her way to the Los Angeles Times as an investigative reporter.

She called the training, resources and community provided by SJI a major help in her career. She said she still keeps in contact with some of the people in her SJI class and said they’ve been her cheerleaders over the years, as she has been to them.

“I don’t know that I would be where I am today without that program,” Gutierrez said.

Sabrina McClain will intern at ESPN this summer.

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