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Summary:

The New York Times is cutting 30 staff — some of them with deep backgrounds in social media. This means the paper could lose a number of its Twitter readers. It also shows how media outlets and journalists need to work out Twitter issues by contract.

Bird, brick wall
photo: steveball

Jim Roberts, the assistant managing editor of the New York Times who has overseen many of the paper’s digital initiatives, confirmed on Thursday that he would accept a buyout and leave the paper. When he goes, the Times will not just lose his 26 years of experience but also many of the 75,000 people who follow Roberts on Twitter.

News of the departure came by (what else) Twitter and was first reported by Politico. In response to a question from paidContent about the fate of his followers, Roberts — who uses the handle @nytjim — tweeted this:

Jim Roberts Twitter screenshot

In an earlier tweet, Roberts said he would have to “find a new handle,” presumably one without “nyt” in it (Twitter lets users change their handle but keep the followers). Roberts did not respond to a follow-up question about whether his contract with the New York Times gives him a legal right to the followers.

For the New York Times, which is trimming its newsroom by 30 people by the end of January, the collective loss of Twitter followers could be significant — especially when those leaving are digital trailblazers like Roberts.

Update: In response to questions of whether Times’ employment contracts cover Twitter ownership, spokesperson Eileen Murphy wrote:

No, there is not a specific policy in place that covers this kind of situation but, practically, when Jim leaves The Times officially he will likely change his account name and bio but the followers are his and will choose to continue to follow him (which I suspect), or not.

For now, the legal question of who owns Twitter readers is a tangled one. In a closely watched case in Seattle, a web site sued a former journalist who had acquired thousands of followers  while working there, and claimed each follower was worth an “industry standard” of $2.50 a month (this figure has been derided as wildly optimistic). Unfortunately for social media watchers, the case settled last year without a final decision.

According to Venkat Balasubramani, a blogger and expert on internet law issues, both sides would have a claim to Roberts’ New York Times handle in the case of a dispute. He said the situation points to the importance of spelling the issue out in an agreement. Here’s how he summed up the issue:

The account does not fit into any of the established buckets of property. (It’s not totally a brand, it’s not purely content. It’s a mix of everything.) Often the account is a mix of personal and business. In this case the account handle incorporates the employer’s mark, so this is something the Times would point to in the event of a dispute. They would also argue that they helped promote the mark and thus should get the benefit of the following.
On the other hand, the departing employees would argue that they really added value by the dint of their efforts and the branding in the account name is something that is easily changed (and one that departing employees would likely change). All of these highlight the benefit of spelling things out clearly in an agreement.
There has been an outpouring on Twitter today of senior media figures praising Roberts’ work as a Twitter voice and social media pioneer:
Screen shot of Jim Roberts departure
  1. Sorry this makes no logical sense. The New York Times is not losing 75,000 followers. No doubt Roberts will rename his account and go on. I have followed him for ages and I don’t consider that I am following the New York Times, I am following him individually.

    The New York Times will do perfectly fine. Articles like this are just linkbait to drive traffic and it’s one reason I don’t follow paidcontent on Twitter!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, nitpicker but if you read paidContent regularly, you’ll know we don’t play the link bait game. As to the substance of your point, yes, Roberts’ taking his Twitter followers to a new handle will not determine the fate of the New York Times. That said, I think you’re giving short shrift to the larger issue of how social media platforms like Twitter increase the influence and mobility of individual journalists — but how these journalists nonetheless rely on conventional news brands to build their reputation. Roberts’ following grew to what it did in no small part because of the “NTY” halo around his name. He has also driven countless pageviews for the New York Times through his Twitter feed — and will do the same for whatever publication he lands at next.

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  2. Typo: “sued a formal journalist” -> former

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  3. What a waste. I know several other editors who spend more time tweeting than editing. Who cares about the twitter followers. They should just wave goodbye and good luck.

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  4. I think you mean NYT.

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