Virginia Trioli is an award-winning Australian journalist, writer, commentator and radio and television presenter, who currently hosts the Mornings program on Melbourne’s ABC Radio.
La Trobe alumna Virginia Trioli (Honours in Arts, 1987; La Trobe University Distinguished Alumni Award, 2019) has been breaking news since she was a kid. Long before becoming a respected Australian journalist, writer, commentator, TV presenter and radio host, Virginia launched her own newspaper.
“When I was growing up, I started a family newspaper, which had the immortal title of The Twicely Supplement because it came out twice a week. In it, I handwrote the Trioli family news. I think there were a couple of classified items as well and I even drew a dreadful cartoon. Clearly my drive to be a journalist was deep down in there, dying to get out, which is hilarious to reflect on now,” she laughs.
Years later, as a university student, Virginia would be criticised for her journalistic style of writing. But a transfer to La Trobe University for her Honours in Arts taught her to see her writing style as a strength.
“I remember it really clearly. One of my essays was sent back with an okay mark, but a rather sneering comment was written on it at the bottom by the tutor, saying that this really read more like journalism than an academic essay,” she says.
“But at La Trobe there was a greater sense of application to the real world. Writing that was thoughtful and intellectually rigorous, but that was also engaging and could connect with the reader, wasn’t seen as a bad thing. That really set me on the path for the career in journalism. It was an unintended but great consequence of studying at La Trobe.”
Coming to La Trobe, Virginia found a ‘brilliant cinema studies department’ and stimulating classes.
“It was a genuinely intellectually engaging time. I completed my Honours and thesis at La Trobe and there was a freshness and an intellectual curiosity about the campus and tutors there that I really responded to. I loved it,” she says.
She also found a sense of equality.
“At La Trobe there was an egalitarianism, both to the nature of discussion and to the student cohort and teaching body. It made me feel like I was at home.”
The cadetship that kickstarted her career
On graduating, Virginia knew one thing for sure: she wanted to get paid to tell stories. She applied for a cadetship at The Age newspaper in Melbourne, sat the exam and got in. It marked the start of her almost decade-long stint at the masthead, working as a news reporter, features writer, assistant news editor and columnist.
From there, Virginia’s career grew across print, radio and television. After a senior role at The Bulletin magazine, Virginia moved to ABC Local Radio, where she hosted shows in Melbourne and Sydney, including eight years on Drive. Having honed her talent for live journalism, she next pivoted to host some of ABC TV’s premier news current affairs programs — from Lateline and 7:30, to 11 years as foundation presenter of ABC News Breakfast.
Across these different news media, Virginia found a common purpose: to connect deeply with viewers, readers and listeners.
I often see my role as being the conduit – the person who can take a really complex, challenging or upsetting story, policy or idea, and who synthesises and communicates it in a way that's meaningful – that will affect people profoundly. My job, my purpose, is to make connections.
So far, her storytelling has had a powerful impact. She’s won two Walkley Awards – the first for business reporting (1995), and the second for her landmark ‘Minister Overboard’ interview with the former Defence Minister, Peter Reith (2001). She’s also collected a Quill Award for Best Columnist (1999) and was named Broadcaster of the Year at the ABC Local Radio Awards (2006).
Looking back on her career achievements, Virginia sees ‘fortune, luck and a lot of hard work’.
“My career has been a surprising, enjoyable and incredibly lucky one. It just morphed as a series of lucky opportunities, from one to the other. And I've only ever said yes to jobs that I felt would bring me enjoyment.”
When an audience reaches out
Today, Virginia has returned to ABC Radio Melbourne as host of the Mornings program. And while she doesn’t have a favourite medium, she admits radio is extremely captivating.
“When you've got a great moment going on — when there's something amazing being told to you by someone you're speaking to, or something incredible happening in the city that you're broadcasting live — you just know,” she says.
“At that moment, out there in Melbourne, there's someone sitting in the car. Their fingers are gripping the steering wheel and the groceries are melting in the back of the car. They're in the garage and they've got to get out, but they just can't turn off the radio. You have them pinned because of that incredible immediacy and intimacy of radio — and it’s completely addictive.”
Sometimes, those captivating moments come full circle. Among the proudest points in Virginia’s career are when audience members get in touch.
“They'll buy the card, they'll write it out, they'll put it in an envelope with a stamp and walk it to the post box. These days, that takes commitment!” she says.
“And when they tell me that something I wrote, or a story I covered, meant something to them, or made them change the way they thought about something, or reduced them to tears — that’s when I know I've actually connected with someone. That gives me the greatest sense of happiness.”
Of course, audience feedback also manifests as criticism. Virginia takes a pragmatic approach to receiving it.
It’s an extraordinary privilege to ask an impertinent question of pretty much anyone, to expect an answer, and then to delve into a topic on behalf of an audience. The scrutiny you receive, you just have to deal with.
If the criticism is batty or outright abusive, Virginia rejects it. But if the criticism feels recognisable — sparking what Virginia calls ‘the little voice inside you that’s clamouring to be heard’ — then it’s worth reflecting on.
“It’s the voice that says, ‘You know, there's something in this... maybe you didn't get that right… maybe you didn't do that as well as you could have… deep down, you know you should have gone this way, not that way.’ In those instances, there's a kernel of truth and you've got to be open to it. You have to listen, because that's the only way you improve,” she says.
This way of working – with humility and self-examination – is something Virginia feels is increasingly important as our careers advance.
“We tell our children that mistakes are how we learn, then we conveniently forget it as we grow up. But it’s a key part of staying on top of your game,” she says.
“Yes, you've got to do the preparation and research, you've got to get your facts right and you've got to be a good listener. But you've also got to be alive to where you might be getting it wrong.”
Persistence, curiosity and speaking up
For those embarking on a career in journalism, Virginia has some matter-of-fact advice.
“There's going to be hundreds of others around you who want that career as well, so you have to want it more than them. You have to show the people you're ringing up, emailing and sending your CV to that you're more dedicated, that you have greater curiosity and that you’re much more an adherent to the facts than any of the others,” she says.
You have to be that one person who tries harder. You need to have new story ideas, new segments and new yarns every single minute of every single day! If you can demonstrate that you can deliver those ideas — and deliver on them — with clean copy and a great sense of style and fun, then you’ll find that job. Be that annoying, persistent person. I tell you, it pays off.
Above all, Virginia says, graduate journalists must always strive to get the facts straight. In a time when fake news runs rife and major global issues abound, truth-telling has never mattered more.
“There's a great deal to be seriously alarmed about, from the macro to the very micro, from climate change, to the nature of our political leadership, to poverty and to the widening gap between the ‘have-like-hells’ and those who have very little. Start small, with the issues in your community, and keep going. But never shirk the opportunity of speaking out about the issues you think really matter. Now's not the time for silence.”
Virginia’s second Walkley is a reminder of journalism’s power to bring about conversation that leads to change. Following her ‘Minister Overboard’ interview, former Defence Minister Peter Reith and Prime Minister John Howard were accused of lying to Australians during the 2001 federal election, and a Senate inquiry was established into the so-called ‘children overboard’ incident.
Lucky for us, Virginia plans to keep sparking these crucial conversations for some time.
“As long as I still have an open mind and an open ear to the competing points of view, to the contest of ideas and to amplifying people’s voices, then I'm doing my job.”
Last updated: 26th August 2020