The rip-off

Before I get started, I want to acknowledge my pettiness. I recognize that this particular juncture of history exposes all the whining herein as trivial, but I will whine regardless because it’s what’s on my mind and the site is called TedQuarters.

And, look: No one can claim dominion over takes. If you believe yourself reasonable — and I believe myself reasonable — you must understand that this world contains other reasonable people, and reasonable people presented with the same facts will often come to the same reasonable conclusions. It would be impossibly presumptuous to think yourself the only person capable of any particular take.

Over the weekend, someone sent me a link to a Barstool Sports post hailing Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich as the greatest sandwich in America. I agree with this take, so I cannot possibly blame the taker for making it. Also, sandwiches are for the people. I want everyone in the world to be able to enjoy Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich as I have, and I know that anything that helps that place keep churning out its incredible food is a net positive for humanity.

But part of the take in question rubbed me the wrong way. This part:

“And what’s fuckin mind bottling to me is anytime you see one of these Best Sandwiches ranking articles it’s nowhere to be found. Ever. (It’s usually because those are pay-to-play advertisements in disguise but I digress) Even in Chicago it can’t crack a top 25 for these foodie squids. Not sure if driving down to the South Side under an underpass is a deterrent or what.”

Here’s the thing: In 2015, I wrote an article for USA Today declaring the same sandwich “the best sandwich in the world.” And I wouldn’t blame this writer for missing it, except that the article turned into a whole big thing.

A bunch of Chicago food blogs and local media outlets jumped on the story, and at least one even did a follow-up about the huge uptick in business Ricobene’s saw from the article. It is the most widely read thing I’ve ever written, and the thing I’m proudest of in my professional career. On a subsequent trip to Chicago, I met with Rosario Ricobene and had perhaps the greatest conversation I’ve ever had in my life. It went like this:

“You have no idea how much that article did for us.”

You have no idea how much that sandwich has done for me.”

From at least August of 2015 through August of 2018, a poster-sized version of the article hung in the window of Ricobene’s. I haven’t been to Chicago for a while so I can’t confirm it’s still there, but it’s there in the most recent Google Street View photos. And if this Barstool writer, who claims deep familiarity with this eatery, ever stopped to read that huge copy of my article that’s hanging on the side of the place, he might’ve seen this part:

(The) sandwich failed to rank on Chicagoist’s list of top 25 sandwiches, or on a CBS Chicago list of best sandwiches in 2010 or 2012, or on top Chicago sandwich lists compiled by Thrillist and Zagat.

So, just to recap: This person, who has supposedly frequented this restaurant for years, published a bold claim about its signature sandwich that so happened to be the exact same claim published five years earlier and now posted on the window of the restaurant. In the accompanying article, he made the exact same point I did about the sandwich being overlooked by food blogs and best-sandwich lists, except now it’s not even really a good point on account of the article I wrote that is displayed on the front page of the restaurant’s website, to which he linked.

To be clear: I don’t think this counts as plagiarism. It’s just lame. I’ll allow the possibility that the writer mentioned the article and it got edited out under some Barstool Sports policy not to send traffic elsewhere, which could easily exist, but I feel confident arguing that whatever happened here is either genuinely lousy, woefully lazy, or astonishingly oblivious.

Getting ripped off sucks. It’s bound to happen if you write online for long enough, and most of the time it’s just sort of mildly annoying: Someone taking quotes from your article without linking back to it, someone posting the entire text of something you wrote on a message board somewhere. It’s a weird feeling when you’re as vain as I am, because you love to know your stuff is getting read and talked about, but you’re under pressure to generate pageviews, and it’s frustrating to see people reading your material someplace where it doesn’t count.

But fairly late in my tenure at USA Today, I got straight-up plagiarized, and it was so demoralizing that I think it ultimately played a pretty big part in ending my career there. When you read about high-profile instances of plagiarism, it’s almost always about the scandal surrounding the plagiarist, and what drove him or her to risk his reputation over it. It feels like no one ever talks to the plagiaree.

Here’s what happened: Late last May, someone called my attention to a sports newsletter from a fairly major web outlet that include a list of the Hall of Famers Mike Trout had surpassed in career WAR that month. Initially, like the person who alerted me to it, I assumed it was a case of great minds thinking alike: Though I had been posting monthly updates on the Hall of Famers Mike Trout surpassed in WAR starting in July of 2016, I obviously can’t claim ownership of Mike Trout’s greatness or baseball-reference’s leaderboards. Besides, last season ESPN.com started doing a better version of the exact same thing, and I don’t think for a second that Sam Miller or ESPN stole my idea.

But when I read further into the newsletter, something about one of its paragraphs struck me as familiar. I went back to my Trout post from the end of April, and found an extraordinarily similar paragraph.

I called out the outlet on Twitter, and the writer DM’d me to say that he was a big fan and that he had intended to quote me in the article. He apologized profusely, said he “dropped the ball process-wise,” and promised to make a note of it link to my own newsletter in his next edition.

But his story didn’t fully line up. For one thing, this “big fan” did not include me among the hundreds of people he followed on Twitter. For another, he had edited out a couple of my sentences and changed a handful of my words, which doesn’t seem like something you would do if you intended to quote someone.

Knowing that pressing the matter would cost the guy his job, I dropped it, because ultimately I just don’t care enough about policing journalistic integrity to jeopardize someone’s livelihood. And I honestly felt bad for him, mostly because he seemed so desperate when I called him out on it, but also partly because he would do it in the first place. In such circumstances, my thing has always been, “eh — I’ll have more ideas.”

But what ate at me over time, really, was what it said about my own stature as a baseball writer. I spent more than 10 years writing about baseball every damn day, and made so small an imprint on the baseball-media landscape that some dude might lift half a paragraph from me without apparent concern that anyone would notice. Do people at reputable outlets do that to, like, Tom Verducci? Would any paid, professional sportswriter expect to get away with reprinting a few sentences of Peter Gammons’ writing without attribution?

And it didn’t help that ESPN.com was also now listing the Hall of Famers Mike Trout surpassed in WAR, which, again, I believe to be totally innocent. But if three years’ worth of doing the exact same monthly post failed to land on the radar of ESPN’s baseball editors, how could I expect to ever wind up in a better sportswriting job?

It all went a long way to convincing me that my career in sports media had hit a dead end. It wasn’t by any stretch the only reason I left USA Today, but it provided concrete evidence of a long-held suspicion and emboldened me to bail.

When I think about it that way, I guess I’m happy it happened. I’ll have other ideas.

2 thoughts on “The rip-off

  1. If there’s one thing in life I’ve learned, Ted, it’s never to ascribe benign motives to anyone who works for (or reads) Barstool.

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