Not since Mitt Romney ran for president has a national political story so failed to capture the imagination — and page views — of the public as the so-called "sequester," a set of mandatory cuts dangling like some ghastly metaphor or other above the cowering federal budget.
As lawmakers squabble over who should be blamed for the doomsday device they installed together in 2011 — across-the-board spending cuts designed to be so unpalatable to voters that they would force Congress to agree on a more acceptable alternative before they went into effect — editors from the Huffington Post to the Daily Caller are struggling to get readers interested in the latest manufactured crisis to roll off the assembly lines of Capitol Hill.
"It definitely feels like there's less interest," said Gabriel Snyder, editor of The Atlantic Wire. "Generally, a sequel is always less exciting than the original. This is more like a sequel to a sequel to a sequel."
"I'd give you a quote about the traffic generated by sequestration stories, but will anyone click on your sequestration-related story and read it?" quipped Huffington Post political editor Sam Stein.
"I haven't noticed this problem, because I saw someone tweet that nothing kills web traffic worse than the sequester. Since then, I have avoided it like the plague," said Daily Caller reporter Matt Lewis.
There's no question that the audience interested in the artificial deadlines continually put in place by deadlocked lawmakers in D.C. has shrunken over the past two years. In July 2011, a Gallup poll found nearly 6 in 10 Americans paying close attention to the debt ceiling standoff; roughly the same portion was following the "fiscal cliff" fight last December. But each of those much-hyped "crises" passed without incident, at least in terms of their impact on average people; America actually sailed peacefully off the misnamed "fiscal cliff" and didn't notice. And so the public has apparently stopped responding to their elected officials' relentless wolf-crying. A new poll out this week found that just 27% of Americans have heard "a lot" about the mandatory spending cuts scheduled to take effect next week.
That steep drop-off in public interest tracks with the black hole of web traffic described by editors, reporters, and bloggers who have tried and failed to cover the sequester battle in compelling ways — a frustration BuzzFeed hasn't escaped.
Over the past six weeks, our Washington bureau has consistently advanced the story with news breaks and enterprise reporting — and attracted very few clicks along the way. A scoop about Paul Ryan blaming the deep spending cuts on President Obama even as he might be counting on them to make his new budget work received just shy of 4,000 page views. A story about how government contractors are responding to the potentially devastating cuts barely eked out 2,000 views. And notably, our coverage of the bickering and posturing surrounding the impending cuts has done even worse than the policy stories.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the word "sequester" is, itself, a headline killer, an unintelligible piece of congressional jargon that begs even the most politically savvy readers to keep scrolling when they encounter it. To remedy this problem, Snyder has begun searching for more clicky substitutes, like "spendocalypse."
"The biggest problem, though, is that the sequester fight basically defines the kind of political story that is only of interest to the people who are paid to be interested," said Snyder. "There are lots of people interested in politics. There are far fewer interested in political theater."
Gawker took that logic quite a bit further Friday afternoon, sexing up the fiscal subject with a fetchingly illustrated cartoon headed "Kate Upton and Ryan Gosling Explain the Sequester." And the Washington Post's WonkBlog, headed by Ezra Klein, offered a post titled, "These 21 animals have strong feelings on the sequester."
Meanwhile, at The Atlantic Wire's sister site, Atlantic politics editor David Graham speculated that since the sequester was a bipartisan invention, it has failed to generate the kind of left-versus-right food fight that is typically great for traffic.
"The fact that there's no clear partisan divide is probably a major factor," Graham said. "Despite efforts on both sides to pin this on each other, I think people sense, rightly, that both parties are guilty, having agreed to the sequester and voted for it. Even if the results are going to be bad for them, readers are more likely to get whipped up if there's an obvious partisan battle in which they can take sides."
What's more, since Congress dealt with the threat of increased taxes on a broad swathe of Americans last month — thus eliminating the most pressing issue for most voters — it is left now to warn against the the wonkier, more abstract spending cuts looming ahead. Gawker editor John Cook put it this way: "As for why it hasn't captivated the nation, I don't know. Who doesn't love math?"
But while voters may be tired of their elected officials inventing phony deadlines rooted in their own dysfunction rather than in reality, there's little doubt that if the cuts do go into effect, the consequences will be very real. And so journalists continue to labor on through the valley of page view death.
"It's a worthy topic to cover," said Stein. "And it is bound to get more important and interesting if sequestration does, in fact, hit. There will be tons of stories to tell then, both inside and outside of Washington, D.C."
CORRECTION: The sequester is composed entirely of spending cuts.