There are plenty of interesting discussions about reporters’ social media accounts, and one of the most notable is around ownership of those accounts. That’s in the news this week thanks to a lawsuit filed in district court in Virginia by BH Media Group, owner of the Roanoke Times and several other papers. The lawsuit is against former Times Virginia Tech beat reporter Andy Bitter over ownership of the @AndyBitterVT Twitter account and its associated followers; Bitter left the paper earlier this year to cover the Hokies for The Athletic and was asked to turn over his account, but didn’t do so.
Here’s more on the dispute from Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch (which, as he notes, is also owned by BH Media Group):
The lawsuit cites the precedent that Bitter had inherited the handle from the previous reporter, Kyle Tucker, and that Bitter signed acknowledgement of the company handbook which stated that the account was company property. At the time Tucker handed the account over to Bitter, the paper was a part of Landmark Media Enterprises. It was sold to BH Media in 2013.
According to the lawsuit, the account was created in Aug. 2010 by Tucker, who was with the Virginian-Pilot at the time, and was handed over to Bitter in Oct. 2011. Bitter transitioned to The Roanoke Times after the paper was sold by Landmark to BH Media.
“Any effort to create a new account similar to the Account in question would not net 27,100 followers for many years, if ever,” the lawsuit says.
Bitter didn’t comment on this directly Tuesday, but did post these tweets:
Well, you can’t help but laugh at the timing of this package’s arrival. pic.twitter.com/JZgZGSLxzW
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 7, 2018
I am staying. Lots of tweets out there about the situation. I'm supposed to stay out of it on here, though.
— Andy Bitter (@AndyBitterVT) August 7, 2018
There are a few notable points that differentiate this from some other cases. The paper has perhaps more on their side than other outlets trying to prove ownership of a reporter’s social media feed would, given their claim that Bitter didn’t create the account in question (but rather received it from his predecessor on the beat and just changed the name) and given their claim that he acknowledged that it was company property as per the handbook. But Bitter’s defense hasn’t yet been filed, and he might be able to argue that the lack of outlet identification in his Twitter handle gives him some ownership; he could also make an argument about the work he did to grow the account over the years, citing where it was in followers when he took it over and where it is now.
At any rate, this case illustrates the sometimes-blurry lines between individual and corporate Twitter accounts, and the challenges that can bring for both sides. Twitter accounts named for individual reporters tend to bring more personality and analysis than just an outlet’s feed of stories on a particular topic, and can gain more traction, more followers and more attention for the outlet as a result, but they’re also more identified with that reporter than the outlet. And corporate ownership of a Twitter account can limit the amount of work a reporter wants to put into growing that account, and can also lead to problems if the reporter ever tweets anything personal or controversial. But that ownership can also make the outlet more willing to promote the account themselves, something they might not do as much if it’s an account for one reporter who might leave and take it with them.
Beyond that, it’s not an issue in this particular case given just the @AndyBitterVT handle, but this does raise questions about media members putting the outlets they work for in their Twitter handles, and if that makes them more vulnerable to corporate account seizure if they change jobs (which in this media landscape, a whole lot of people are going to do at one point or another). But corporate account seizure would also seem harder without an explicit policy that accounts belong to the company (which the Times claims they had) and without those accounts being created by the company, or at the least by other employees of the companies (which the Times claims is the case here). We’ll see how the Bitter case plays out, but the real takeaway for outlets and reporters elsewhere may be to come to clear agreement on who owns a particular account and what that means if the reporter ever changes jobs. That might avoid future court battles like this.