Deep throat: Médor’s hard-hitting investigative journalism

Its first issue pretty much took the country’s media world by storm, largely because of a corporate-induced injunction that, in the end, only played in its favour. Its model – transparent, independent and participative – suggests a new way forward for publishing projects, one which doesn’t result in advertisers placing a chokehold on editorial content. And the quality of its reporting, as well as the solidity of its founding values, place it amongst one of the most respected new titles to hit newsagents shelves in a while. Welcome to the world of Médor, a trimestral publication that already counts six editions to its name and, well, does things a little more differently than most.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

Médor isn’t a dog

Despite its first issue being published in the winter of 2015, the idea behind Médor first saw the light of day in the summer of 2012, during an impromptu meeting between a group of, amongst others, independent journalists in a Molenbeek ground-floor apartment around a few beers and spaghetti bolognese. “It started out with the collective realisation that information became more and more precarious, as were our working conditions,” Olivier Bailly, independent journalist and one of Médor’s 19 founders explains, from the same ground-floor flat where it all started. “We were asked to write about subjects that were less interesting, we had to write faster and, often, for less money. All of us were ready to create something different,” he continues, adding that Médor never was, and never will be a project driven by money: “We didn’t have a business plan in the strict sense. The mutual driving force was, and still is, information. Compare it to a bakery: if you leave bakers up to the creation of their bread, you’ll end up with good quality bread. During our first meetings, Médor (a French calling-name for a dog) was almost like a code name that came pretty naturally – a dog digs through the ground – and it wasn’t too serious. It gave some Belgian modesty to it, unlike the typically French names given to media. It’s less excessively glorious than XXI or Feuilleton.”  And that’s how, for two years, the team religiously held monthly meetings, aimed at defining clearly and in as much detail as possible how the editorial ethos could be transposed to all other aspects of the process, from distribution (bicycle delivery) to graphic design (open source publishing) and even their bank (Triodos, whose turnout goes to social profit). “What amazes me the most about the entire process is that we stuck to having these meetings. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes in the process but at least we were able to put in place the key elements of the project even before Médor ever went to print.”

The Streisand effect

One of the best decisions made during those meetings was, according to Olivier, to turn Médor into a cooperative business. Meaning to create a media that’s transparent, independent and participative, allowing its founders to bring their project to life without risking it all financially. “Not a single one of us had sufficient funds to launch a print media from scratch. Not even a thousand euros. What we could put in, however, was energy, enthusiasm, beer and snacks,” Olivier chuckles. 20 euros gets you a share in Médor, and every shareholder has participation and decisive rights. There is one caveat though: the decision making process is divided into two groups – at least when it comes to fundamental decisions – and, if necessary, the 19 founders are able to override a vote which, at its core, serves to safeguard the integrity of the magazine’s content. To illustrate, Olivier gives an example: “Say a pharmaceutical company decides to buy thousand shares because they’re annoyed with Médor’s reporting on the subject, and they demand as shareholders to stop covering them. Then we, as founders, are able to say no, we don’t vote for this.” At a certain point, with 4000 shareholders on board, Médor finally launched despite lacking sufficient funds to continue for more than one season. A blessing in disguise, it’s not a coincidence the example of pharma companies came up quickly: even before the first issue hit the newsstands, Walloon pharmaceutical company Mithra took Médor to court through a request of extreme urgency, stating that the article on them that was to be published was bound to cause ‘irreparable damages’ to their organisation. And despite the title being blocked for three days, a judge eventually allowed the issue to be distributed. “It was a classic case of the Streisand effect: someone wanted to hide information, which caused it to be diffused everywhere. The whole affair worked out in our favour, actually,” Olivier concludes, adding that “Mithra at first persisted, telling us they’d continue to fight us but they never did.”

Pilots, punks and peer reviews

Managed collectively, every Médor collaborator works with missions, and there’s no such thing as an editor-in-chief that oversees everything. Instead, every issue is lead by a pilot and a co-pilot, with journalists each assisted by a parrain, a system comparable to the academic concept of a peer review. And, since March 2017, the art direction is in the hands of one or more Pilotes Punk. “It’s actually the first time we’ve been able to do just what we’re supposed to do: graphic design,” says Sarah Magnan, Médor co-founder and part of graphic design collective OSP (Open Source Publishing). “For the first issue we were in charge of the artistic direction too, choosing the illustrators, putting those people in contact with one another, etc. That’s partly why the Pilotes Punk came in.” Designers from outside, they’re tasked with the visual development of one specific issue, allowing for the OSP team to further develop their tools, which are, as the name says, open to everyone. “We base ourselves on open software, programs that are free to use, to study, to modify and to redistribute which are the four founding values of open source,” OSP member Antoine Gelgon explains, to which Sarah adds “when you start to understand that you’re limited by a large corporation in the software you use to create, it can be problematic. With open source there’s no dichotomy between your tools and your creation process. And there’s no denying that both are unavoidably linked.” It’s in that spirit that Médor organises itself, this transparency to freely collaborate between graphic designer, illustrator, journalist and photographer. “Which doesn’t mean we succeed in doing so efficiently every time. I’m pretty sure our tools and process stay pretty opaque for some of the collaborators. Sometimes it doesn’t go further than making corrections on both sides, separately. Ideally we’d influence the writers through our design, and they’d influence us with their writing. It’s a utopian goal we’re striving to achieve,” says Sarah. But they’re striving nonetheless. Another crucial facet of the publication is the photography portfolio, a 14-page spread highlighting a documentary photography portfolio from different artists in the country. “What interested me was the ability to give a place to photography in an informative publication in Belgium. Something that didn’t really exist anymore. Especially not one who pays for it,” explains Colin Delfosse, a freelance photographer and Médor’s photography editor. “With the portfolio we try to find a new photographic narrative to present the medium,” Colin continues, giving the example of Jan Rosseel’s series on the Brabant Killers that was published in Médor’s first issue. Rossseel was himself a victim of the horrific killing spree, his father having been killed in one of the gang’s many raids. “For his series, he went through an entire research process, through archives, crime scenes and objects. It’s a compelling story, an essential one in Belgian history. And while it may appear conceptual at times, photography remains a medium that’s open to anyone.”

The central wheel

Having escaped several burn-outs and deep depressions, given the heavy work load – the 19-strong team led, next to their editorial and visual efforts, the entire logistic side as well, from distribution and accounting to subscriptions and communication – things didn’t always run as smoothly as they could. “I think the temperament of the founding members caused them to absolutely want to take all matters into their own hands,” Laurence Jenard, who’s been Médor’s director since late 2016, and the only full-time employee so far, shares, from the publication’s headquarters near the city’s Flagey square. “They had put all their energy into the first issue, and continued doing so quite successfully for the next ones, but after a year they were as exhausted as is humanely possible so they took the financial risk of hiring someone who’d manage distribution and development on a full-time basis. The job offer described the position as a fakir, with the subtitle ‘someone who knows how to walk on alms with a smile,’” she smiles, “I guess they wanted to be honest about the fact that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.” Having worked at Recyclart for 15 years, seven of which as director, Laurence felt the same energy. “My role is more about giving a framework rather than having to pull the organisation forward. I quickly noticed that certain regulatory aspects were already put in place, but the central wheel was missing. All I had to do was ensure a certain level of coherence between those. And little by little, we can see the contours of a global vision taking shape. Fact is, Médor’s organisation structure doesn’t allow for egotism to develop, everyone always finds him or herself in a different role.”

With open eyes into the future

After a stabilising process that took a little over a year, Médor’s biggest ‘blind spot’ is the online sphere, Olivier admits. “Right now we have what’s called a showcase website. We’re not sure yet how to approach the web, and we want to be very cautious about the urgency online content is treated with, and how it can damage information. We’d love to create something that’s in accordance with the web’s qualities whilst putting its deficits aside. A way to engage with our readership in a productive manner, instead of an open minitrottoir full of nonsense. But for now, we haven’t yet found out how to do so exactly.” As for Laurence, she’s convinced that in ten years’ time, Médor will still be around. “But we do have the reputation of being optimists,” she grins, “Médor bases its entire model around its readers and subscribers. Which gives us a large amount of liberty, unlike advertising-based publications where advertisers supposedly shouldn’t have an influence – which, in reality, they do have. It’s crucial we keep guaranteeing our readers an independent and innovative result, all while being careful of not being too elitist, that it remains accessible to everyone.” A statement Olivier agrees on: “What’s most important now is ensuring that we continue to be a project that’s, despite everything, innovative and experimental. It’s a bit the risk that comes along with stability, the more you have of it, the easier it gets to fall into a certain rut. Visually we’re hoping to continue the trend through engaging the Pilotes Punk. And we never stop having the same, often intense discussions.”