RBC may have failed to take into account the shifting moods of the Russian elite, which now views any media outlet as a potential foe during its ongoing confrontation with the West.

RBC office building in Moscow. Photo: TASS

For a very different take read: "Russia's independent media takes another hit"

The editorial shakeup at RBC, one of the most prominent liberal media outlets in Russia, continues to reverberate within the nation’s media industry. There are two main theses about the move to oust some of the company’s top editorial staffers – it was either a crackdown on “freedom of speech” orchestrated by the Kremlin or it was a “dispute of economic entities” involving the company’s oligarch owner, Mikhail Prokhorov.

But could there be another reason for the move based on broader trends within Russian society?

Over the past two years, RBC has been scooping up the best journalists from some of the most respected media sources within Russia. Many of them came from the solid teams at the business newspaper Vedomosti or the Russian versions of Newsweek and Forbes. Others came from Ren-TV, a Russian TV network. Remember: these magazines, newspapers and TV channels all changed their editorial focus after the new restrictions were imposed on the media with regard to foreign ownership.

Moreover, another group of journalists came from “reformed” Russian media outlets, such as Lenta.ru or the Izvestia newspaper, where the change of owners or top managers led to some alterations in their editorial policy, making them not only more loyal to the government, but also less rigorous in their analysis. This change in editorial policy enabled them to target the less “refined” interests of the general public. But again, we see a pattern: many of the journalists were well aware of potential problems within the media industry as a whole.

As a result of this influx of new talent, RBC became not only a stronghold of critical and well-informed journalists, but also a successful business operation that occupied a profitable media niche for liberal readers and viewers. Due to this shift in focus, RBC started to become profitable based its ability to serve this fast-growing audience. Unlike Meduza, TV Rain or other entrants in the liberal media niche, RBC tried to keep the veneer of an unbiased approach in their publications and attracted those who were looking for “objective information.”

Nonetheless, the media holding company was unlucky with the owner – the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Some critics would claim that he is notorious in Russia for turning everything he touches into a failure.

This time, he reportedly began to think about selling the company’s best-performing assets that were responsible for all the profits. However, at the same time, the company still had a large, nearly unbearable burden of debts from his predecessors. Taking into account his minimal interest in continuing his political career, he no longer needed a media outlet that would help to project political influence, or even create political problems for his rivals.

Which brings us back to the editorial shakeup at RBC.

Is it all connected with the brave journalistic investigations of the media company? None can prove it directly, but this theory is, at least, partly true. And again there is no surprise about it. In the modern world, media has become an extraordinarily powerful weapon in winning over the hearts and minds of people during any political confrontation.

The Russian elite, which has had to face a tsunami of anti-Russian propaganda over the past three years, acts now as if it were on the battlefield, keeping an eye out for potential enemies everywhere. Does it mean that RBC should not have published anything on the Panama offshore banking scandal or the inner financial workings of the Russian president’s family members? No, it should have, but with clear understanding of the tone acceptable to one of the parties engaged in this war.

The journalists brought up in the traditions of the media of the 1990s – total opposition to the state, taking sides and working at the “destruction of the system” (as some observers have referred to it) – did not catch the current wave. It is completely different now - media all over the world have become much more consolidated, politicized and pro-state, especially during any situation that threatens the viability of the state.

As for the market implications, the end of RBC is, to a certain extent, a piece of good news. First of all, other oligarchs may begin to abandon the media and not use these outlets as part of their own political wars, either against the state or against each other.

Secondly, there are many other independent media projects that are now completely online, using the power of the Internet and social networks to reach their audience. They are the future of the industry, much more so than the traditional media holdings focused on print and TV.

Thirdly, a group of professional journalists is now available on the market – they have a portfolio of previous successes, they have a smaller appetite for risk after the recent scandal with RBC and they are famous because of the entire situation. This can be a good chance for other media outlets to improve their coverage.

Now that some of the leading editorial staffers have departed RBC, it could face the process of inevitable decline. Of course, much will depend on the journalists who stay behind. If they remain professional and unbiased in their materials and keep up their morale, it could turn out that they will continue to put out a good product with slightly less political engagement.

However, if they give into the panic about “the end of freedom of speech,” they will then sink the rest of RBC with their own hands, simply by abandoning the wrecked ship instead of trying to fix it and move on. And this will be a bigger blow to the freedom of speech than any calls made from the authorities in the Kremlin.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.