NEW YORK, NEW YORK — Every weekday at noon, a spokesperson for the United Nations briefs the media in the auditorium at the Dag Hammarskjold library, just adjacent to the world body’s towering Secretariat building in New York. And every weekday, Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press is there, asking about topics that no other member of the press corps will touch. His website is starkly organized, with a look that brings to mind early Geocities pages and the Drudge Report. But for followers of U.N.-related affairs, it’s turned into an important source of information. Not only is ICP just about the only place to find news on, for instance, the U.N.’s stalled attempts at investigating war crimes in Sri Lanka, or the world body’s handling of the Thailand-Cambodia border dispute, but there are also few (if any) other outlets that publish stories with headlines like “At UN, Kosovo Debate Dominated by Organs & EULEX Limits, IMF Critique.”
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This obsessive coverage of institutional goings-on at the U.N. allows Lee—ICP’s senior reporter, founder, and editor-in-chief—to fill a crucial media niche. He explains that while most other reporters at the U.N. are there to get the world body’s reaction to global events, he is one of the few reporters focusing solely on the U.N.’s internal affairs, as well as on the U.N.’s byzantine web of agencies and organizations.
“Some institutions, whether it’s City Hall or the federal reserve, get covered as an institution because it’s clear what they do and who they answer to,” says Lee, who is camped out in front of the Security Council chamber—prime real estate for reporters hoping to get quotes from U.N. power brokers. “With the U.N. that’s not clear at all… they think they can just play the card of ‘we mean well.’ Even if that is true, meaning well isn’t enough.”
Much of ICP’s content deals with accountability-related issues, such as the world body’s notoriously obscure finances, or the relationship between the U.N. and various human rights-abusing governments. Like any good muckraker, Lee has built a sprawling network of contacts. In a two-hour span, a half-dozen U.N. ambassadors entering and leaving the Security Council chamber greeted him by name. Lee says he receives over 100 e-mails a day from readers and tipsters—including people who work within the United Nations system.
ICP was founded in 1986, but has only focused on the U.N. since 2006. Before then, Lee’s publication was a printed newsletter that he says had a circulation of around 32,000. In its print form, ICP was a self-produced guerilla publication focusing on various issues related to the south Bronx. “We distributed in public libraries and takeout Chinese restaurants and homeless shelters and housing projects in the Bronx,” says Lee, who says that the newsletter was originally intended to “stir up homesteading and self-help housing.” This included covering the allegedly-predatory lending practices of major American banks.
A U.N. forum on the banking sector and environmental responsibility brought Lee to U.N. headquarters for the first time—and convinced him that the place was in need of an aggressive journalist. He recalls witnessing a press conference with banking executives in which “there were only three journalists and the first question was, ‘Bank of America, why do you care so much about the environment?’ And the guy said ‘good question!’ and I thought, if this is what journalism is at the U.N., it’s ridiculous.” He applied for a U.N. press credential shortly after that, and says he has been able to finance his U.N. beat because of the organization’s unique support for its press corps. Office space at U.N. headquarters is free for journalists, as are transportation and accommodations for correspondents credentialed for Security Council or secretariat trips abroad. Lee has been on three of these, including a recent trip to the Sudan.
While his infrastructure costs are basically covered, the rest of Lee’s expenses are supported by a steady—and, he says, steadily increasing—stream of PayPal donations from his readers. (Google ads and money from Lexis Nexis views of ICP content are also factors.) Although he says he gets a donation of over $100 an average of once a week, most donations are much smaller. “There’s no secret sugar daddy,” he says. “And actually, I’m fine with that. I think the more spread out it is, the better.”
While Inner City Press technically isn’t a one-man operation (Lee has a small number of volunteers and has also had editorial assistants in the past), he doesn’t see much room for the site to expand. The site is largely sustained by Lee’s ability to work the U.N. beat, and to single-handedly conduct an audacious pro-transparency crusade from the heart of an opaque international institution. With no plans for major editorial or infrastructural change, ICP will continue to be fueled by a dogged journalistic ethic that underlies the site’s bare-bones layout and business model. “I like a press conference where you have two sides coming and you ask each of them a question they don’t want to answer,” he says. “Then you’ve done your job.”
Inner City Press Data
Name: Inner City Press
City: New York
Principal Staff: Matthew Lee, editor.
Revenue Sources, other: content licensed by LexisNexis.