Less than 24-hours old, the Huffington Post's new parenting blog is already the target of legal action from The New York Times and insults from Times staffers. According to WWD's John Koblin, the Grey Lady's lawyers sent HuffPost a cease-and-desist letter on Monday after Lisa Belkin, who started and helmed the Motherlode blog at The Times, announced her new blog project at HuffPost: Parentlode. "While we are flattered by your focus on our blog and your apparent fondness for its name," Times lawyer Richard Samson wrote in a letter to Arianna Huffington, "we obviously cannot permit you to adopt a name whose sole purpose is to create an association in the minds of readers with our 'Motherlode' blog." HuffPost has three days to respond before The Times "pursue(s) all available legal remedies."
This is no instance of simple copycatting: Belkin herself started the blog that The Times is defending against infringement. News organizations own the intellectual property of their contributors, both freelance and staff, and blog titles are no exception. So, yes, perhaps Belkin and her new colleagues should have thought harder for a name that didn't include the syllable -lode, if just to keep things civil between the feuding organizations.
As a legal case, The Times may be on solid legal ground. Samson said in his letter The Times filed a trademark application for the Motherlode brand name on Monday and pointed out to Koblin that, "trademark rights accrue from the time you begin using the word/phrase." HuffPost is doing the same with the name Parentlode, but Belkin wasn't shy about the resemblance and even explained why she changed "Mother" to "Parent" in her announcement column, nor did she shy away from the fact that the Times has stuck by the Motherlode brand for the past three years. As Samson noted in his cease-and-desist letter, HuffPost also tagged Belkin's intro post as "motherlode-blog." A Huffington Post spokesperson told WWD, "Our only comment is that we're very happy with the launch of Lisa Belkin's column today--and so are our readers." When asked if there had been any developments beyond that statement, HuffPost told The Atlantic Wire "none."
But there's more going on here. The Times has historically been a poacher more than a poachee. Two decades ago the typical advice to an aspiring reporter looking for a job there was something along the lines of: go become a star at a second-tier paper and wait for a call from the Grey Lady. And no one has ever pretended that those poached reporters were expected to completely reinvent themselves and tackle a new beat whenever they changed employers.
More recently, as The Times has been offering buyouts and Arianna Huffington has been offering lavish salaries to people with a New York Times entry on their resumés, the dynamic has shifted a bit. In April, Times energy reporter Tom Zeller Jr. took a job as HuffPost's senior energy and environment reporter. Maura Egan left the Times's style magazine T to oversee HuffPost's culture and entertainment coverage in March, although she only lasted five months in the role. Tim O'Brien defected last year, abandoning his job as the Times Sunday Business editor to run the HuffPost's national desk at a time when the online newspaper was trying to expand business coverage. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller complained publicly about how "damned annoying" it was that Arianna kept writing big checks and stealing his staffers.
It's not just that The Times is becoming a talent hunting ground for web upstarts. The notion of the paper as a lifelong employer has been diminished by hard times for newspapers. Instead of a time when journalists were expected to bounce around the newsroom bureaucracy, the shifting forces of the industry have put a bigger emphasis on a Brand Is You-style of career management. Belkin seems to fit more into this latter trend. Back when she announced her departure from The Times, also to WWD's Koblin, she didn't make her move from the paper she had worked at for nearly three decades sound entirely voluntary:
Belkin started as a clerk for the Times in 1982 before being promoted to reporter and then a national correspondent. She went on contract and eventually became a writer for the Times Magazine. Earlier this year, as magazine editor Hugo Lindgren relaunched the weekly, he informed Belkin that she wouldn’t be writing much. Was that a reason she decided to jump ship?
"It was truly time for a change," she said, and added, "Hugo came in and wants his own people and that makes perfect sense."
Learning the digital ropes, building a devoted audience, tending your personal brand: these are all the sorts of things that journalists are supposed to be doing to adapt to the new news climate. It's exactly what Andrew Sullivan, who had moved his Daily Dish brand from Time to The Atlantic to The Daily Beast, has done. So too Mickey Kaus who's ported his Kausfiles moniker from Slate to Newsweek and now The Daily Caller. If Belkin made a mistake it was not initially insisting that she could take "Motherlode" with her if she ever left The Times, as the Freakonomics guys did when they moved their branded blog from The Times to their own site.
Still, Belkin's former colleagues have been particularly vocal about her slight. Times digital editor Jim Roberts pointed out the resemblance a few minutes after her post went live. New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh weighed in on Tuesday: "NY Times v. HuffPo aside, 'Parentlode' is just not a good name for anything," adding "I do look forward to such HuffPo parenting-blog spinoffs as 'Babylode,' 'Toddlerlode,' and 'Diaperlode.'"