Inside the palimpsest : a study of newsroom information gathering
The methodologies of systems design, rooted in engineering and in cognitivist conceptions of human action, have been stretched to the limit by the complexity of uses to which information and communication technologies are being turned. Within segments of the broader design community there has been a 'turn to the social' - a perception that there is a need now for richer stories about the everyday practices systems designers build tools to support. This thesis is presented as a contribution to the corpus of 'richer stories' about the what, how, why, when and where of information gathering. The thesis presents findings from an ethnographic study of newsroom information gathering at a UK daily newspaper. Adopting an analytical perspective based upon cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), it describes and analyses journalistic information gathering on two mutually constitutive levels; that of activity and that of artefact mediation. Its starting point is that neither information gathering, nor the artefacts of information gathering, can be understood without consideration of the social, cultural and historical contexts within which they are situated. Ethnographic data is drawn upon to argue that journalistic information gathering can only be understood within the particular context of the 'story lifecycle'. Stories are the principal object of journalistic enterprise, and the thesis examines in detail how everyday working practices are oriented towards this lifecycle. Based on an analysis of the artefacts of newsroom information gathering, and of the discourses of information systems designers, it is also argued that the discourses of systems designers over-emphasise the importance of the category 'information'. In palticular it is argued that sources are how journalists orient themselves in the vast, heterogeneous information spaces they simultaneously inhabit and populate. The background to these discussions is the often controversial relationship between ethnography, theory and systems design. This relationship is examined and it is argued that the CHAT perspective provides design ethnographers with an opportunity to move from ethnographic intuition to design insight. It is also argued that at a more pragmatic level, CHAT helps the fieldworker navigate the apparently never-ending mass of 'potentially interesting material' any field experience throws up.