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FACT CHECK: Visiting reporter was not paid by city, state for positive New York Times article about Fargo

Freelance reporter Danielle Braff visited Fargo this summer and left with a glowing impression of the city. She shared those thoughts in a recent New York Times article.

Parking lots and rooftops are viewed from a rooftop perspective.
A rooftop view of First Avenue North in downtown Fargo on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — A recent New York Times story offered positive reviews of downtown Fargo, but some North Dakotans questioned whether the reporter was paid to write an advertisement for the city.

The Forum has determined the article written by Danielle Braff, a freelance reporter, was not part of a paid marketing campaign.

Braff visited Fargo over the summer and chronicled her visit in a New York Times story titled “Geez, Even Fargo Has Gone Upscale.”

In the story, Braff heaped praise on the dining, shopping and tourist attractions Fargo has to offer.

“I was so impressed, especially with the restaurants. For a city that size to have such good restaurants, it was incredible,” she told The Forum when discussing her story. “The shopping was super fun. The attractions were great. I was just blown away.”

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New York Times freelance reporter Danielle Braff paid Fargo a visit over the summer. While Braff has visited some of the world's biggest cities, her time in Fargo exceeded expectations in more ways than one.

Braff’s high praise for Fargo prompted suggestions from some Forum readers that she was compensated for her kind words. "This isn't even journalism its a paid marketing ad," one Facebook user wrote.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce also took to Facebook to congratulate their Tourism and Marketing Division for "landing this piece."

Kim Schmidt, communications manager for the North Dakota Department of Commerce’s Tourism and Marketing Division, said her office was aware that The New York Times would be publishing Braff’s story but that the state did not compensate her for the positive coverage.

“We had no idea,” Schmidt told The Forum. “That came about after her visit.”

Schmidt added that her office did not influence the story and that The New York Times maintained full editorial control of Braff’s story.

Double exposure

While Braff was not compensated by the state for her New York Times story, her summer visit to North Dakota was part of a campaign to help promote the state.

The visit was brought on by what Schmidt referred to as “proactive pitching,” a coordinated effort between state tourism officials and a national public relations firm to promote North Dakota.

“A lot of people outside of our borders don’t realize all of the opportunities that we have in the state,” she said.

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Downtown Fargo on Oct. 28, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

In this case, Braff was visiting North Dakota for a separate story that will be published in a travel publication next spring, Schmidt explained. Braff’s story about downtown Fargo came about organically while she was visiting the city.

Braff received $1,000 in expense reimbursement from North Dakota Tourism for her upcoming travel publication story. However, she was not compensated by the state or city in any way for her New York Times article, Schmidt said.

“We’re actually getting double exposure, double bang for our buck, so to speak, by bringing this freelancer in,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said her office worked with the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau to coordinate interviews and design an itinerary for Braff while she was in Fargo. Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, confirmed that his organization did not make a financial commitment for Braff’s visit.

‘The first date’

Braff’s visit to North Dakota represents just one piece of the state’s efforts to tell its story, Schmidt explained.

She said her office pitches stories on a weekly or daily basis, but they must “pick and choose” due to having a limited promotional budget of $241,200 for such promotions in the 2021 to 2023 biennium.

“We do a lot of vetting on these writers before we bring them to the state because they need to fit with our brand; they need to be able to tell a really positive story for North Dakota,” she said.

The reason for these visits, Schmidt said, is to bolster North Dakota’s image across the country and — hopefully — attract people to move here. Tourism is “the first date,” she said. “People need to visit before they’re going to decide to potentially move to North Dakota."

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Downtown Fargo on Oct. 28, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Campaigns for which outside visitors receive compensation come with contractually defined “deliverables,” Schmidt noted. That could include a specific number of blog posts, photos or social media posts, or allowing the state to review a story before it is published. The state will not make a payment until those obligations are met, Schmidt added.

However, when writers pursue stories independently, the writer and publication maintain full control, as was the case with Braff’s New York Times story about downtown Fargo.

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Schmidt has worked for the state for 16 years and said nationwide promotion has been a longstanding objective throughout her tenure.

“We’ve been trying to tell our story for quite some time,” she said. “We’re just really trying to find a way to maybe elevate that and tell it in a different way.”

The recent New York Times article was one piece of that goal, even if the state did not have to pay for the glowing coverage.

“Ultimately, we were super excited about this piece. It tells a really good story for downtown Fargo,” Schmidt said. “We hope that it will help to incentivize people to travel here and potentially relocate to North Dakota. All in all, we see it as a big bonus win for us.”

CATCH UP ON THE INFORUM BUSINESS BEAT PODCAST
Downtown Fargo hotel project canceled, A&A opens in expanded space, pizza shop closes
Fri Feb 03 08:18:00 EST 2023
In this episode of the Business Beat Podcast, we hear about the brakes being put on a downtown Fargo development project and a new home for the popular Asian & American Supermarket. Plus, an all-natural soap company expands into the Red River Valley.

For more business stories, visit us at https://www.inforum.com/business.

00:54 Downtown Fargo hotel and apartment project canceled 01:46 Asian & American Supermarket opens in new, expanded location 02:26 Punk Chef Pizza closes 02:54 New nightclub to open in north Moorhead 03:31 Buff City Soap to open in Fargo and Grand Forks 04:07 Mexican Village to close downtown Fargo location

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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