WATCH NOW: After criticism, Washington Post reporter welcomed by Red Lake County locals
RED LAKE FALLS, MINN.—As a journalist, it's Christopher Ingraham's job to ask questions.
But it was Red Lake County residents who had a few questions for him Thursday, namely: "What do you think of our county now?"
Ingraham is the Washington Post reporter who infamously wrote last week that a U.S. Department of Agriculture index ranked Red Lake County as the "absolute worst place to live in America," based on its natural features.
The online backlash was immediate, with residents tweeting scenic photos of their home county. Even U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., got in on the criticism.
Ingraham traveled to Red Lake Falls Thursday afternoon to see the county for himself. City officials and business owners rolled out the red carpet at the county courthouse, complete with a drumline from Lafayette High School.
"I've done a lot of maps of county-level data, but not a single one of them has gotten the response that this particular one has," Ingraham told a throng of local news reporters. "I write about a lot of contentious topics, like gay marriage and guns and marijuana, so it's a lot of things that people often disagree with. But I've never been disagreed with so much and so politely."
After meeting city leaders, including Red Lake Falls Mayor Kevin Harmoning and City Administrator Kathy Schmitz, at the courthouse, Ingraham rode a roofless school bus typically used at the nearby Voyageur's View resort to the Schindlers' dairy farm just outside of town for a tour. His itinerary also included kayaking On the Red Lake River, a bus tour around the county and a meet-and-greet at TNJ's Bar and Grill.
"This is our ordinary living around here," local resident Jim Benoit said. "I think he's going to go away with a total, complete picture of the area."
Ingraham agreed, and said the Red Lake County experience shows the limits of data-driven stories.
"You can tell really interesting stories with data," he said. "But you can't, in most cases, tell the complete story.
"It's a good reminder for me, as someone who spends most of my day at my desk doodling around on spreadsheets, that these numbers all really correlate to real people," Ingraham added.
Locals seemed to embrace the last-place ranking, even if they disagreed with it. Voyageur's View Owner Jason Brumwell said restaurants were creating dishes to commemorate the occasion, like the "the world's worst wings."
"That's been one of the coolest things about this experience, is getting to know everybody around the county," he said. "Everybody (is) kind of coming together and saying, 'How can we show this guy how great our county is?'"
Thursday wasn't the first time a national newspaper writer paid a visit to the area after writing a less-than-flattering piece about it. Dave Barry, a former columnist for the Miami Herald, poked fun at Grand Forks and East Grand Forks in an article for "declaring that they are 'where the earth meets the sky.'"
"This turns out to be slightly inaccurate: Between the earth and the sky, there's a layer of really hard ice," he quipped.
Residents invited Barry to see it for himself, and he visited in January 2002. They also named a lift station after him, sparking a new tradition. Two other lift stations are named for Herald personalities Marilyn Hagerty and Mike Jacobs.
"I think there is a part of the culture that wants to assert itself, that wants to show people why we like it here," said Jacobs, the former publisher of the Herald. "North Dakotans in particular, but northern Minnesotans too, think of ourselves as underappreciated and probably misunderstood as well. So when an opportunity comes to show the place off, that's what we want to do."