Many Russia-watchers have grown accustomed to beginning their day with a quick run through "Dorogaya redaktsiya
," the often-playful Twitter feed of Lenta.ru, one of Russia's most popular sources of independent online news.
But "Dorogaya redaktsiya" went silent on March 12, replacing its Twitter icon with funereal black and issuing a final tweet linking to an open letter
from the Lenta staff protesting the ouster of its longtime editor, Galina Timchenko, and her replacement with a Kremlin-friendly candidate, Aleksei Goreslavsky.
"We believe that this appointment is direct pressure on the Lenta editorial staff," says the letter, which includes the signatures of more than 80 editors, correspondents, and administrators. "The problem is not that we have nowhere left to work. The problem is that you have nothing left to read."
Thirty-nine staffers have since quit in protest.
Lenta continues, for now, to publish. But in a season that has seen the steady toppling of Russia's few remaining independent news sources, the long-term health of the site has clearly been cast in doubt by the departure of Timchenko, who has worked at the outlet since its inception in 1999 and held the top post for a decade.
Timchenko was informed of the decision by Aleksandr Mamut, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the powerful owner of Lenta's parent company, Afisha-Rambler-SUP, as well as the LiveJournal social-networking site.
The formal reason for her removal, she said, was the paper's publication, two days earlier, of an interview with a member of Right Sector, the Ukrainian nationalist group that has played a key role in the country's Euromaidan protests. The interview linked to a 2008 profile of Right Sector leader, Dmtry Yarosh, saying Ukraine was "destined" to fight what he called the "Moscow empire."
The Yarosh profile itself was not published by Lenta. But the link itself was enough for Russia's media-monitoring arm, Roskomnadzor, to issue a formal "extremism" warning to the site, leading to the dismissal of Timchenko and the special correspondent responsible for the Right Sector piece, Ilya Azar, who had reported for Lenta from Crimea. (The site's general director, Yulia Minder, has since been dismissed as well.)
Veteran reporter Svetlana Reiter said the staff has demanded a meeting with Mamut to explain his decision.
"The questions are these: Why was there a decision to immediately fire the editor?" Reiter said. "And it really was immediate -- a speedy, one-day decision, just like in American movies, with packing boxes. We would like to know, what caused this sudden urgency. Because as far as I know, Lenta.ru's traffic is growing. As far as I know, it was the most popular Internet news site in the country."
WATCH: Video (in Russian) posted to YouTube of the confrontation when newly named editor Aleksei Goreslavsky arrived in the Lenta newsroom:
Lenta, with an average monthly readership of 11 million, had been viewed as one of the last safe havens for reporters brought up in the brief, post-Soviet tradition of critical news reporting.
Timchenko's replacement with Goreslavsky, the former editor of the openly pro-Kremlin website Vzglyad.ru
, bears a distinct resemblance to the recent appointment of unabashed spin doctor Dmitry Kiselyov to head a refashioned RIA-Novosti news agency.
Another independent outlet, Dozhd-TV, is believed to be facing imminent closure after posting a poll with controversial wording on the World War II siege of Leningrad. A promising political website, Maksim Kovalsky's OpenSpace, was closed in 2013.
Ilya Krasilshchik, a political activist and the up-and-coming editor of Lenta's sister publication "Afisha," wrote a blistering post on his Facebook page about the Lenta shakeup, ending with a word of advice to budding journalists: "Choose other professions. Now is not the time."
Reiter acknowledged options for independent journalists are dwindling fast.
"In principle, there are fewer and fewer and fewer independent publications, free of censorship, in Moscow," Reiter said. "We write about this endlessly. And now we've ended up in this situation ourselves, and others are going to write about us. It's pretty unpleasant, I would say."
"Dorogaya redaktsiya," in its penultimate tweet, offered a wan commentary on the future of Russian journalism, noting that the date of Timchenko's dismissal coincided with the world day against cyber censorship. "We almost forgot to celebrate," the tweet said.
Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague based on reporting by Valentin Baryshnikov of RFE/RI's Russian Service