This Texas Tech professor is using her unorthodox background to train tomorrow’s journalists.
Chyna Vargas, a third-year journalism major at Texas Tech University, recently visited the Lubbock courthouse for her reporting class. Dressed in professional attire with her notebook in hand, Vargas observed an ongoing trial, quickly scribbling notes.
In a world saturated with Zoom interviews, journalists are increasingly less familiar with how to cover stories in person. Lucinda Holt, assistant professor and associate director of the Thomas Jay Harris Institute for Hispanic and International Communication (HIHIC) in Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication, is determined to equip her students with these skills.
“Journalism is taking massive hits,” Holt said. “Newspapers and news stations are cutting niche areas, and in some cases, they're even cutting investigative reporting.”
The industry was already struggling before COVID-19, but the post-pandemic world has required newsrooms to move to a lean, and sometimes lacking model.
“I tell my students they'll have to do their own work,” Holt said. “Backpack journalism is becoming the norm. You must pitch, report, write and even do your own photography and video.”
Holt wants her students to be prepared for this reality and knows that means getting them out of the classroom. Taking her students to the courthouse each semester is just one way she does this.
“I didn't know what to expect when we got there, but Professor Holt was there for us and answered all our questions,” Vargas said. “She wants her students fully present and excited about journalism, so she puts us in real-life scenarios.”
This makes sense, as Holt has never been one for a desk job. When she was a fulltime reporter, she would interview people on their turf. Now, she wants to pass that tenacity onto the next generation.
The Start of a Dream
Holt grew up as one of four children to migrant workers who farmed cotton near Slaton. While most of the older generations of her family were not bilingual, her parents were, and they insisted their children be educated in both languages.
“Luckily, I attended public school from a young age and quickly picked up English,” Holt said.
To stay sharp, her father would study each page of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal along with the Slatonite, both local newspapers. Holt remembers sitting at the kitchen table with her father each morning as he quizzed her on current events.
“That's where my passion for journalism began,” Holt said.
After graduating from high school in 2001, Holt attended Western Texas College where she pursued journalism. As a first-generation college student, Holt was already facing some challenges, but that intensified in 2003 when her older sister was killed by a drunken driver.
“I was devastated,” Holt said. “She was my best friend.”
Overwhelmed with grief, Holt moved home to grieve with her family. While she planned to return to college the following year, life held other plans.
As she began to heal from her loss, Holt kept busy, working full time. It was during this time she met Charles. The two were friends for more than a year when they decided to marry. Charles had enlisted, so he joined active duty and the two moved around the state for the next decade. Holt desperately wanted to finish her degree but supporting a military spouse and caring for two children kept her busy.
Finally, the couple returned to Lubbock in 2011 and Holt enrolled at Texas Tech to finish school. Graduating from with her bachelor's in degree in journalism in 2014, Holt began working as a reporter for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
“It felt like life had come full circle,” Holt said.
From reading the publication with her father at the breakfast table, Holt was now a journalist herself.
Stubborn as Hell
Soon after arriving at the paper, she became the public safety reporter. Working with police officers, detectives and first responders, Holt struggled to establish herself as an expert in her field.
Observing some sources were not taking her seriously as a female minority, Holt devised a plan.
“I tried out for the Lubbock Police Department (LPD) and Lubbock Fire Department (LFD),” she said. “I did both the written and physical tests because I wanted to better understand what first responders went through from a reporter's point of view, but I also wanted to gain some respect.”
When it came time to take the fire department's physical exam, Holt walked into the facility and saw the eyes of the examiner widen.
“He actually laughed out loud,” Holt said. “That made me mad, and I'm stubborn as hell, so I was determined to pass the test.”
The firefighter attached 50 pounds of gear to Holt's small 4-foot 11-inch frame and watched as she shocked the men watching. Not only did she clear the course, but she did it faster than many of their applicants.
“When I returned my gear, the examiner shook my hand,” she said.
Holt not only gained respect, but also some great sources that day.
Over the next two years, Holt covered both the crime and religion beats at the Avalanche-Journal. True to her style of in-depth reporting, her stories took her away from her desk most days.
Holt was called to active crime scenes, many of which left their mark on her. As she responded to scenes involving children, she started observing the struggle that Child Protective Services (CPS) had when responding to an emergency case. Often in a matter of one hour, a minor was separated from their parents. Holt observed that CPS had a harder time finding emergency placement for older teenagers when this happened, meaning many of these teens would end up sleeping in CPS offices for one or more nights.
“I could only report on so many cases without doing something about it,” Holt said. She and Chuck went through training that would allow them to later take in teenage placements.
Holt's colleagues acknowledge that's just who she is.
“Lucinda's time as a crime reporter at the Lubbock A-J exposed her to the darker sides of humanity,” said Kent Wilkinson, professor and director of the HIHIC. “Yet, she always has a positive, upbeat demeanor. She makes everyone around her feel comfortable and she has brought that to our work at Texas Tech.”
An Unexpected Change
Holt's journey to becoming a faculty member started in an unorthodox manner. After two years of reporting for the Lubbock A-J and freelancing for the New York Times, Holt started feeling unwell.
After a few weeks, she was experiencing exhaustion, fatigue, rashes and joint pain. At first, due to her stubborn nature, she just kept reporting, assuming the symptoms would fade.
When they didn't, she decided to see a doctor and have labs run.
The results came back: Lupus.
Confused, discouraged and unsure how to proceed, Holt wanted to keep reporting if she could.
“I was certainly overwhelmed,” Holt said. “I didn't know how the diagnosis would affect my life and I wanted to keep doing the things I loved.”
Holt continued reporting for as long as she could, but eventually reached a breaking point.
“I was covering a shooting in South Lubbock one night,” Holt recalls. “It was the middle of winter, so it was incredibly cold. We were going on four hours of waiting for police statements to make our deadline and I was having a flareup. One of the news camera operators noticed and started up his car for me to sit in.”
But Holt already knew this would be her last day covering crime.
“I couldn't keep up that pace; it wasn't healthy,” Holt said. “But I wasn't sure what I would do.”
Holt had the New York Times freelance gig but knew that wouldn't be enough. She had loved her time as a student at Texas Tech, so she decided to pursue graduate school and see what doors that would open.
She completed a master's degree in mass communication and media studies in one year. As the end of graduate school neared, she explored new career ideas. Still not wanting to be stuck behind a desk, she explored options that would keep her on her toes, but maybe not always on her feet.
“It was around that time that David Perlmutter, dean of the College of Media & Communication, told me I should consider applying for a faculty position,” Holt said. “Honestly, I was a bit shocked.”
Holt left a positive impression on the dean during her undergraduate years, and the sentiment carried into graduate school. Holt recalls having conversations with the dean about her background, life as a non-traditional student and balancing a career while in school. She didn't realize the impression she left during those talks.
And it wasn't the dean alone who was impressed. Wilkinson served as her graduate thesis adviser and encouraged Holt to apply, as did many other faculty members Holt had collaborated with over the years.
“I went into the interviews but had this sense there were others more qualified than myself,” Holt said.
The hiring committee disagreed.
Holt was hired in 2019 and has been a full-time faculty member in the College of Media & Communication ever since.
Journalism & Research
“Once I started teaching, everything clicked into place for me,” Holt said. “The things I'm passionate about melded together in this role: mentoring, creativity, teaching, journalism and research. It's all there.”
While Holt didn't always know she loved research, she fell in love with it during her time at Texas Tech. She says journalism and research are very similar.
“They're linked,” she said. “In both cases, you're putting together pieces of a puzzle. You identify a problem and listen for a solution.”
A naturally curious personality, Holt instills this characteristic in her students too.
“We're all born with an inquisitive nature,” she says. “Somewhere along the line, that gets stifled, but that's exactly what makes a great reporter. That's why I tell my students to question everything.”
In addition to teaching reporting, Holt is engaged in research at the HIHIC which exists to promote a better understanding of Hispanic-related and international media communications through research, teaching and community outreach.
In the past year, Holt has researched the dissemination of Spanish news information within Lubbock County. The Hispanic population of Lubbock had the highest rates of infection during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Holt and her fellow researchers are trying to understand why.
“There is a lack of Spanish media in Lubbock and the surrounding communities,” Holt said. “We have two print publications, one television station and two broadcasting services in Spanish. When you compare that to the amount of information available in English in the same region, there is a large disparity.”
She also emphasizes that half the Spanish media offered isn't even local, but rather telecast from other cities and states.
Holt wants to understand how this affects communities going forward. And it's not just Lubbock – this trend is everywhere. Just recently, Dallas lost its largest Spanish news station.
“For quite some time, Hispanic media has unfortunately been seen as niche media,” Holt said. “But Texas is now 40% Hispanic, and that number is only growing. So, it's odd to see Spanish media resources decrease while the Hispanic population is increasing.”
Holt's research doesn't stop there, though. Part of the reason she's focused on information surrounding the pandemic is due to her fascination in rapid crisis communications.
“It's not enough to be trained in just crisis communications anymore,” Holt said. “We live in a world with citizen journalism and social media that demands rapid crisis communications. If communicators don't get the facts and share them quickly, other narratives unfold, and often, they include misinformation.”
The Hispanic response to the pandemic in Lubbock is a perfect example of this. Holt explains that when Spanish speakers couldn't get updates about COVID-19 in the news, they quickly turned to social media.
Holt says the end goal goes beyond COVID-19 and encompasses crisis communications as a whole.
“Almost every day now, we're dealing with mass shootings, disappearing children and natural disasters,” she said. “People immediately become emotional and angry in these situations. When they feel they're not getting information, or, they're getting contradictory information, they become angrier.”
Holt says this contributes to confusion and mistrust.
“It snowballs quickly,” she said. “If you aren't an effective and transparent communicator, it can impact the outcome in high-stakes situations.”
And with the number of crises and problems in the world today, Holt strongly believes rapid, culturally informed communication is essential. At least that's what she is teaching her students.
Setting an Example
Whether Holt is writing, raising children, raising others' children, performing research or digging into a story, she carries one passion through it all.
“I love mentoring young people,” Holt said. “I've always had a nurturing side. Maybe I got that from my sister before she passed away.”
Wherever it came from, it's an element that elevates Holt's teaching.
Reflecting on her recent visit to the Lubbock courthouse, Vargas says it's moments like these that give her confidence as a writer.
“Professor Holt always reminds us that words have incredible power,” Vargas said. “At times I've questioned my ability as a journalist, but Holt reminds me of the power I have to change things for the better.”
This sentiment is echoed by senior journalism major and editor of the Daily Toreador, Arianna Flores.
“I've had Professor Holt for a few classes, and she allows me to make mistakes and grow in a safe environment,” Flores said.
A first-generation Hispanic student herself, Flores came to Texas Tech looking for a woman in the industry to look up to, and she found that in Holt.
“As someone from a Hispanic background, I was really excited to have Professor Holt as a teacher because it helped me feel I could be myself,” she said. “I didn't have to pretend to be someone else.”
It's not surprising Flores was inspired by Holt, who is unapologetically herself. Holt often walks around campus in her signature black leather jacket and a look of focus on her face. But when you say hello, you're greeted with an electric smile and a warm embrace.
“I think it's important to stay true to who I am,” Holt said. “When I recruit at community events in small towns like the one I grew up in, other Hispanic people are surprised when they find out I'm a professor.”
But after the shock fades, they often lean down to their young daughters, and say, “She teaches at Texas Tech! You could do that one day, too.”