New York Times editor to take 75,000 Twitter followers out the door with him

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