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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. In addition to the suggestions you make in the final paragraph, the issue of ownership of the Twitter account should have been spelled out in a written contract of some kind.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Yes, although the Pilot seems to think making employees sign for the Employee Handbook checked that box. I’m not sure it does.

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  3. @James Joyner:

    Yea I don’t think that qualifies either.

    In this case, I think the strongest argument the newspaper has is that the account was created before Bitter was even employed at the paper and that it was handed down to him when he started there. If this had been an account he started on his own and then used to promote his writing for paper it would be a different story.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    James, I think you summed up the issues very well. The use of the reporter’s own name definitely clouds the issue and as far as I’m concerned tilts it in his favor. Interestingly, a non-twitter version of this exists: the case of Robert X. Cringely. In that case “Cringely” was a pseudonym used by an Infoworld columnist. It had been used for the same publication by two other writers but Mark Stephens really turned it into a brand. When he left the company they sued to prevent him from using the name but eventually settled, allowing him to use it but not for direct competitors. So, not an exact match but it would have been interesting to see how it would have played out in court.

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    the account was created before Bitter was even employed at the paper and that it was handed down to him when he started there.

    Is that correct? According to James’ post, the account was in the reporters name. It would seem it must have replaced the original? I’m not a Twitter user though. Can you change the handle on an account?

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  6. Tim Hughes says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I think the question of who started it is likely dispositive.

    Still – pretty stupid handling by the paper if they valued this account. SOP is to have an official organization twitter handle and then have individual employees have their own individual handle.

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  7. @MarkedMan:

    Yes you can change the handle on a Twitter account as long as it is not currently held by someone else.

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  8. @Tim Hughes:

    Yea, that seems to be the way most other news organizations handle this. For example, the NY Times (which is admittedly a much bigger organization than the Pilot) has “official” news Twitter accounts and the individual reporters have their own accounts. While they are still apparently bound by Times social media use policies even when using the private account — which is understandable given the fact that reporters for a major paper are effectively the face of their employer — my understanding is that the personal account is theirs to take with them when they leave. For example, CNN’s Jake Tapper still uses the same Twitter account he did when he was at ABC News, but there are also separate accounts for the shows that he hosts.

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  9. Timothy Watson says:

    After doing some research, it’s apparently difficult to do role-based account management on a Twitter account. The only way appears to be though the “Teams” feature using Tweetdeck and that required several minutes of research just to find.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: @Doug Mataconis: @Tim Hughes: As Doug notes, one can change Twitter handles pretty easily; the hard part is finding a useful name that hasn’t already been taken. Indeed, there’s really no question that Bitter is entitled to keep the Twitter handle with his name; there’s no way the Pilot has the right to keep tweeting under his name. The issue is the account itself, which would need to be re-named to reflect either the Pilot or Bitter’s replacement on the VT beat.

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  11. RandomName says:

    @Doug Mataconis: How was it handed down? Did the newspaper give Bitter the keys or did the former employee say “I don’t need it anymore, would you like it?”

    I don’t believe there was a contract or meeting of the minds on ownership. Media will have to be much more explicit with new and existing employees on who owns what.

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  12. RandomName says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Do we know the original handle on the account? If it was a corporate or person’s name?

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  13. @RandomName:

    The only thing I know about the answers to your questions is in the article that James links to in his post.

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  14. James Pearce says:

    In the dystopian future history novel I’m reading, the only thing that separates “newspapers” from “not newspapers” is control of the Twitter account.

    (FYI: This is a joke.)

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  15. Electroman says:

    @James Pearce: Today it’s letting you mail stuff second-class. And no, this isn’t a joke.

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