Her energy levels are “incomparable in journalism”, according to The Australian‘s George Megalogenis: “I don’t think anyone at that time of the morning can be as coherent as she is.”

Sky News reporter Ashleigh Gillon admits to being a huge fan: “Her interviews always get to the core of the issue and she’ll usually come up with a new angle to top it off.” Academic Wendy Bacon says she “knows what she’s talking about when she asks questions”; Michael Gawenda calls her a “terrific morning presenter and interviewer”. Even Chris Mitchell, The Oz’s editor-in-chief, “likes [her] interviews”.

Indeed, if quality journalism is measured in praise from your peers, Fran Kelly might top the list. Most journalists and news-makers wake up to the Radio National early bird each morning — which makes Kelly one of the most influential media players in the country.

But if so many practitioners cite her as a top journalist, who does she look to for a daily news fix?

Kelly is the latest expert in Crikey’s quality journalism project, which quizzes Australia’s most interesting journalistic minds to find out what good journalism means to them and where they go to get it. Laura TingleLeigh SalesAlan Kohler, Ita Buttrose, Mark ColvinGeorge NegusMarni Cordell and Tom Switzer have all stepped up to the plate – if there’s an expert you’d love to hear from please let us know.

From Adelaide rock chick and band manager, to Triple R in Melbourne and Triple J nationally, Canberra political reporter, London correspondent and now host of the gruelling Radio National Breakfast for a seventh year, Fran Kelly steps up for our quality journalism challenge …

What is your definition of quality journalism?

For me — and it’s influenced by the journalism I’ve done a lot of, that is politically focused — to respect a journalist and to respect a piece, I need to know that the reporter really knows what they’re talking about. I’m looking for proof behind the news that is offered, behind the conclusions that are reached, that a lot of research has gone on, that reporters have made a lot of phone calls, have sought out answers to a lot of questions. I’m always suspicious of reports that cite blithely “senior sources say”, if there’s not plenty of quotes from those sources in there.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that journalists like Lenore Taylor (Sydney Morning Herald) and Laura Tingle (Australian Financial Review) were incredibly hard working, talented and reliable because of the leg work they’ve done. And in that category you can’t go past Michelle Grattan (The Age) because her style is summed up by “just one more call”.

Quality journalism, in my view, is also journalism that involves original analysis. Citing my experience in the press gallery, the quality there comes from the fact that the reporters are there first on a story, the first to analyse it, so even though they might be stating the obvious there is a skill in making quick, original, accurate analysis with some insight and doing that consistently because it’s hard to do.

Is it getting harder to deliver?

I think it’s three things. Fewer people in newsrooms is a pressure, of course. Twenty-four-hour news and online news is a pressure. It’s harder to make the time to make the calls, there’s no doubt about that. But I also think that it has fallen away a bit in the sense that you actually need to do a lot of leg work. I think it’s not as rigorous as it has been in the past.

I was having that conversation with [ABC foreign correspondent] Phillip Williams, who I think is one of our best. He and I were in London together and he’s there now. He’s travelling a lot more. And as he describes the regular day now in terms of all those demands in the mix with News 24, it’s completely different. So that they churn out anything original is actually extraordinary.

It is disappointing what’s happening to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. They have scaled back their political bureaus. I think it shows. They’re all great journalists but there’s hardly any pages dedicated to federal politics in the paper. I’m sometimes so surprised at the decisions they make, what they lead with and the treatment they give to stories.

Fran Kelly’s top 10 (or so) quality journalism sources in Australia:

  • Laura Tingle, Lenore Taylor and Michelle Grattan. As discussed, they are in the vanguard, really.
  • Andrew Probyn: The West Australian is not a widely read newspaper. But Andrew breaks more stories probably than anyone else in the press gallery. I think he and his colleagues there run a really great bureau.
  • 24-hour political journos Lyndal Curtis and David Speers: I am really heartened by the commitment to excellence that I still see, even though News 24 and 24-hour news is a hungry beast. They’re great exemplars of that. They’re both really classy journalists and really hard working, they never take their foot off the pedal, they never say rubbish just to fill, and I’m really heartened by their commitment because I think 24-hour journalism is really important.
  • Four Corners has been incredible strong this year. The reports of Sally Neighbour and Sarah Ferguson this year have been top journalism.
  • ABC radio current affairs programs: Within that I would single out the job done by foreign correspondents particularly. Sally Sara, Mark Willacy, Matt Brown, Phillip Williams, etc.
  • Sky News Agenda with David Speers every afternoon is very strong.
  • The Australian Financial Review: I really rate the political commentary by Laura Tingle and Geoff Kitney.
  • The Australian: Even though I think it is completely skewed on issues like climate change and the NBN. It does a great job on indigenous issues and it’s the most committed of all the papers to federal politics. I just think it has to be regarded because of its commitment. It’s got great journalists — Paul Kelly, Cameron Stewart, the Canberra bureau is very strong, adding Sue Dunlevy is a masterstroke, it’s got Mike Steketee writing for it, it’s got Hedley Thomas, it’s got great writers — but I don’t believe everything it tells me.
  • The Sydney Morning Herald: Of course.
  • The Monthly: They just have some terrific writers. And I think they do long, difficult, considered pieces and I think that takes commitment.
  • Quarterly Essay: It just gets stronger and stronger when you think of some of the political essays in the last 18 months.

What media do you consume on a daily basis?

I get in my car at 4.40am and I’m listening to the BBC on the way in. And then I get to work and we either have the BBC or CNN on the television. I’m reading The SMH, The Oz, The Daily Telegraph, The AFR at speed at my desk between pre-records and going on-air. I’m checking ABC News Online for any news developments overnight. I check BBC World News online; it’s always got for me the best versions of international breaking news. So that’s what I do before I go on air.

On some days though I have two or three pre-records in that hour before 6am so I’m away from my desk for 20 minutes. On those days I select who I think are the best reporters for their coverage if I’ve only got time for a quick read. I check the front pages; sometimes The Fin Review misses out unless I’m doing an economic or business interview, I don’t get to it until later. I’ve got interviews I know I’m doing so I have to make sure I’ve scanned all the papers for anything relevant because if you don’t you go to air and you might miss something huge. So I’m highlighting as I go through and reworking my questions.

Later in the day I listen to a bit of The World Today and PM as I’m walking the dog. I always try and watch Sky Agenda with David Speers, especially in sitting weeks. I watch Channel Nine news usually, ABC News, 7.30. I love to watch the 7PM Project when I can. I’m checking out Crikey almost every day, just a couple of stories usually. For the interviews I’m doing I’m also reading books and essays and blogs and online reports; there’s no end to that.

What particular stories – either Australian or international – do you think are classic examples of quality journalism?

  • Pamela Williams is a standout journalist and my kind of admiration began with The Victory after the 1996 election and then her coverage of the waterfront dispute, which I re-read many times in preparation for doing The Howard Years. I just thought it was a great series. And then she did it again with her reports of bringing down Kevin Rudd. She has the capacity to allow people to let her behind the closed doors; it’s fabulous the way she does that.
  • More personally, I’ll never forget Paul Lockyer’s reports when he landed in Grantham after the floods. I was at home on the couch and it was just incredibly moving.
  • In that same category, Sally Sara’s reports on the Pakistan floods. They were so powerful and I think unlocked a lot of donations from this country. She’s one of our great news reporters but also a great empathic storyteller. She’s brilliant and in a league of her own.
  • The news story that really stuck with me in more recent times is that story of Lenore Taylor of Kevin Rudd dumping the CPRS and putting that on the backburner. The moment I saw it you just knew it was a game-changer and it was a game-changer.

So how DO you sound so alive at 6am?

It’s a heady mix of adrenalin and performance. I’m not normally someone who would get up super early but I’ve always been able to operate when I get up early. If you don’t think about it … as soon as you get into work it’s a buzz. It’s a buzz to be engaged in all of these stories. It just buzzes you up, you can’t help it. But there is a little coffee involved.

I love the job. It’s not easy to think about moving on because I can’t quite think where I’d want to move on to.

If anything there’s pressure on us not to dumb it down. We’re going for an extra half hour next year and there’s been a lot of discussion about how we make sure that doesn’t water down the integrity of what we do. We don’t just want to pump it up with fillers. The feedback from our audience is we can’t be serious enough. So whenever we want to light it a little bit the audience tells us pretty clearly they’d rather we didn’t.