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A sports reporter took a new job. Now his former newspaper is suing over a Twitter account.

The Roanoke Times wants the Twitter account of a former writer. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

Laura Windsor, a Richmond-based attorney for the company, declined to comment further.

Bitter also declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. He has continued to use the account — @AndyBitterVT — to promote his work and that of his new colleagues since starting last month at the Athletic, a subscription sports site.

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.”

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“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.”

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.

Bitter seemed to allude to the question of ownership of the Twitter account in his introductory piece for the Athletic last month, inviting readers to subscribe to the site to continue following his coverage.

“Over the past seven years, you accepted me, and the results have been great,” he wrote. “I’ve grown into the beat and you’ve followed along in impressive numbers, either by clicking on my stories or following me on the Twitter account I alone have owned and operated.”

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.”

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 newspaper says it sent a cease-and-desist order to Bitter last month and has already lost $5,000 tending to the question of the account’s ownership, which the Times says is important to servicing its readers.

“Plaintiff depends heavily on its online presence to advertise its business, which requires the ability to communicate with existing and potential readers and subscribers and react to online trends in real time,” the lawsuit states. “The Account’s list of roughly 27,100 followers provides direct, unfettered, and instant access to a unique group of individuals and entities that have affirmatively indicated an interest in the products of the Times, namely its reporting, by following the Account.”

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