Why legacy media brands still matter in the UK’s ‘social media election’

For decades, the front pages of newspapers have documented iconic campaign moments. Now, many think that the internet (particularly social media platforms) is where an election is won or lost. Some have even dubbed this year’s general election the “TikTok election”.

It is true that the nature of campaigning has changed, and newspaper and broadcaster reach has waned. But legacy media brands still drive much of the political conversation around elections and beyond, though analysing their continuing reach and influence is complicated.

News organisations are facing varying challenges related to their enduring influence, reputation and reach among audiences. Media companies that can draw on deeper pockets and resilient brand loyalties are best positioned to withstand such difficulties.

But media consumption is not a zero-sum game. Suggestions that established news providers are rapidly declining in the face of the digital media ascendancy are unfounded. Around half of UK adults may say they use social media for news, but that does not mean they have no need for traditional media.

Digital platforms such as social media apps are not, themselves, publishers (a distinction that has enabled tech companies to avoid statutory regulation). They operate, via the user’s feed, as gatekeepers to information often hosted elsewhere.

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The Sun, Daily Mail and other legacy news providers are brands that exist both on and offline (rather than merely as printed or broadcast entities). If we remember this, their enduring value becomes clearer. In April, the Sun and the Daily Mail, along with the Mirror and the Guardian, reached over 20 million people in the UK each. The BBC had an even larger audience of 37.8 million on its apps and websites alone.

Many people using social media for news deliberately access legacy media, by following journalists and news organisations of interest to cultivate their news feed. Other access is incidental, but no less important for its serendipity – three-quarters of online legacy news content is accessed via side-door routes such as social media, search and mobile aggregators.

And to the extent that influencers are the predominant source for news on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, it is fundamentally the work of professional journalism which provides the material upon which their commentary is based.

Direct access

Another assumption in the discussion about the decline of established journalism is that politicians can disregard traditional news providers. Social media, the argument goes, means they can now directly address potential voters.

In practice, however, politicians have not abandoned their interest in attracting mainstream media attention (and ideally approval). Even that most notorious scourge of “fake news”, Donald Trump, clearly designs his social media outputs to engage (and outrage) reporters within the Washington beltway.

A key aspect of communicative and political power is the ability to shape public discourse from behind the scenes, in subtle ways. For politicians, this means cultivating relationships with journalists, away from public view.

Political elites still need their media counterparts, and vice versa. There are mutual benefits that the confidential distribution and co-production of information delivers. The “open door” between media and political executives both symbolises and cements their relationship, and further underlines the enduring relevance of legacy news brands.

Overhead view of a couple in straw hats sitting at a picnic table reading the newspaper
Where do you get your news?

Newspapers also influence other forms of media content, including that of broadcasters. Opinion-forming programmes such as Radio 4’s Today, BBC Breakfast and Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg continue to privilege front-page press stories, including in their coverage of this election.

One of the clearest indicators that leading politicians still care about traditional media agenda-setting is the close interest they pay to the editorial preferences of leading news organisations. True, Rishi Sunak took to social media to promote his national service policy. But he is likely to be much more concerned about speculation that Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers may endorse Labour than by whether the Conservatives will have a better TikTok game.

Keir Starmer has placed “change” at the heart of both his mission to re-shape his party and his electoral offer to voters. Whether his invitation to Murdoch’s most recent summer party reflects this shift in the Labour party brand, or simply Murdoch’s propensity to back prospective winners, will ultimately be less important to Starmer than the thaw in relations itself.

Either way, it is a striking contrast to The Sun’s vituperative treatment of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, in the last election. If The Sun does declare for Labour, don’t expect an equivalent avalanche of anti-Sunak hyperbole during the run-up to polling day. The most Starmer can hope for is a de-alignment, rather than realignment of the paper’s editorial stance.

This reveals something about the enduring power of established news brands. When these kinds of electoral alliances form, it is the politicians, rather than the publishers, who tend to make the greater concessions.

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