A custody battle is raging between a newspaper and its former reporter over a Twitter account. The Roanoke Times’s parent company, BH Media, is suing one of the newspaper’s former college football reporters, Andy Bitter. They say he refused to hand control of his Twitter account—which he had acquired from the previous reporter on his beat seven years prior—back to the newspaper when he left to take a job at The Athletic last month.
BH Media says that The Athletic, which has been systematically pillaging talent from local newspapers for more than a year, is a direct competitor to the Roanoke Times and is seeking “a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction arising from misappropriation of its trade secrets, computer crimes.”
The lawsuit says that the account was created in August of 2010 by Bitter’s predecessor, Kyle Tucker, and was handed over to Bitter in October of 2011. It says Bitter signed an employee handbook saying account belonged to the newspaper. The lawsuit doesn’t say how many Twitter followers the account—now @AndyBitterVT—had when Bitter began managing it, but that number was assuredly far less than its current following of over 27,000.
For reporters, especially beat reporters who build their reputation on tracking and breaking—usually on Twitter—team minutiae and transactional updates, being able to reach a large audience is crucial. Having a relatively large Twitter following likely contributed significantly to why Bitter was hired at The Athletic to begin with. Considering that Bitter was mostly responsible for growing the presence of the social media account to its current following, he’s also mostly responsible—I’d say, anyway—for the value of the account, and should get to retain control of it. The lawsuit, by the way, estimated the value of his Twitter account at $150,000. Yes, it said a beat writer’s Twitter account about Virginia Tech football was worth as much as a small yacht.
In what reads as a bleak assessment of its own newspaper’s ability to report, break, and then share news on social media, the BH Media lawsuit said: “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 also notes, however, that Bitter used the Twitter account to plug his own “Why I’m going to The Athletic” story. At this point, that in itself should probably get you kicked off Twitter.
The full suit can be read below: