Newspaper Sues Former Reporter to Get His Twitter Account Back
Andy Bitter has taken a new job but his former employer thinks it owns his social media account.
WaPo (“A sports reporter took a new job. Now his former newspaper is suing over a Twitter account.“):
The Roanoke Times spells it out right in its handbook: Employees who have been issued “Company-owned information assets, keys or other access items must return them to the Company upon termination of employment,” according to a lawsuit filing this week in federal court.
Does that policy also include the keys to social media accounts maintained by its reporters? That’s what the Virginia newspaper is now arguing.
The paper filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against its former Virginia Tech sports reporter for failing to relinquish control of his Twitter account when he took a job at a competing news outlet. The Times also asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia to grant a temporary restraining order that would prevent Andy Bitter, the former reporter, from using the account to promote his work covering the Hokies for his new employer, the Athletic. The filing says that Bitter “signed an acknowledgment of receipt” of the employee handbook, and that the handbook makes clear that all social media “accounts and communications on those accounts” are the property of BH Media, which owns the paper.
The lawsuit is noteworthy in that it asserts an employer owns an employee’s social media account and controls both access and rights to its content. The Roanoke Times said in its filing that a previous beat writer started the account in 2010 and that it was then passed on to Bitter when he was hired in October 2011. Now that Bitter has left the Times, the paper wants access to the account back — along with the 27,200 followers that have accumulated since it was created in 2010.
As framed here, it would seem obvious that this is Bitter’s account. But not so fast:
The lawsuit argues that Bitter “has essentially taken BH Media’s curated customer list (or at worst [a] list of potential targets) to use for direct marketing on behalf of a direct competitor.” The Times suggests in its filing that it would take seven years and cost the paper $150,000 to rebuild a base of followers for an account dedicated to Virginia Tech athletics, but that “any attempt at recreation would likely never result in the same configuration of followers.”
“To re-establish the Account, BH Media would be forced to hire or redirect a full time employee to attempt to reengage roughly 27,100 followers,” the newspaper says in its complaint. “There is no guarantee that any or all of those followers would choose to follow the new account, that they would engage in the same way, or that they would follow without the Account following them back. There is simply no way to identically recreate the Account.”
That’s certainly true. But, if it’s Bitter’s account, it’s also irrelevant.
While reporters often change jobs, they don’t typically relinquish their social media accounts. They often continue using the same account — sometimes with a different handle — to promote their new employer’s content while engaging with the same audience of followers.
“A lot of journalists have Twitter accounts before they came to a company,” said Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at the Poynter Institute and leading media ethicist, who described this as a complicated case without much legal precedent. A Twitter account in this context “is sort of similar to Rolodex, which in most cases a reporter did own,” McBride said.
Of course. But that’s not what happened here.
Poynter’s McBride — who formerly served in an ombudsman role at ESPN — said that journalists have used Twitter accounts to make themselves more marketable, and indeed, many of the Athletic’s hires have brought sizable Twitter followings to the growing company.
“It’s hard enough to be a journalist these days. In the name of good journalism, I think journalists should own their own brand. It brings value to them as individuals,” McBride said. “There are so many journalists who are losing their jobs because the economy in journalism is so bad. It is an asset they can take with them that make them more employable. I’m not sure it’s an asset the company deserves to keep.”
I agree wholeheartedly. Up to a point.
The Times suggests in its lawsuit that Bitter never actually owned the account in question. It was started by Kyle Tucker, a former beat writer for the Virginian-Pilot, in August 2010. The account’s content was initially owned by the Pilot, the lawsuit states, and later licensed to the Times, its sister paper. BH Media then bought the Times in 2013, after Bitter had already taken over the account from Tucker, thus becoming “the sole and exclusive owner of the content and the Account,” according to the lawsuit.
The account was started by the Virginian-Pilot and briefly grown by Tucker. But its primary value is the following that Bitter built up over the ensuing seven years. People who wanted to engage with Bitter, not the Pilot. There’s a strong fairness argument, then, that Bitter should get to keep that value.
But I think the Pilot has the better argument. They realized, rather early on, that they needed to build up a social media following to navigate a changing media climate. They started accounts for various beats and made it part of the job of their beat writers to share their content via Twitter and build connections with potential sources, readers, and the like. Bitter was, therefore, paid to build up the Pilot‘s Twitter account and shouldn’t be able to take it with him to a new employer, forcing the Pilot to start over.
That said, the Pilot‘s practices here strike me as odd. First, given that they intended this to be the paper’s account, it makes no sense for them to give Bitter or any other reporter administrative access. They should be able to log in and take control of the account back. Second, while I get the attraction of establishing a connection with the reporter, using his name in the Twitter handle certainly makes it seem to readers that its said reporter’s personal account, not the Pilot‘s beat account.
During my time at the Atlantic Council, I established and ran their main Twitter account, @AtlanticCouncil, as well as several subsidiary accounts. It never occurred to me that it was my property to take with me, since I had established it for my then-employer and was being paid, in small part, to run their account. Similarly, while my exposure as managing editor of the Council doubtless contributed to my own brand and led to my gaining more followers, it never occurred to me that they had any rights to @DrJJoyner, my personal account.
The best practice, for both media outlets and reporters, would be along those lines. The Pilot should have created an account with a handle such as @PilotVaTech and instructed Bitter to fill it with content and engage with readers. At the same time, he should have had a personal account, @AndyBitter or the like, and both tweeted out the same content and deliver personal views that perhaps would be inappropriate for a corporate account. Many reporters on political beats do precisely that—often tweeting the same content back-to-back within the span of seconds.