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June 2, 2017, 8:30 a.m.

Solving the crossword puzzle: Rebuilding a print habit on digital devices

“Sometimes, I’ve learned, you have to take opportunity where you least expect it. And in the end that’s what happened to us.”

It was always astonishing to me as a newspaper editor how much readers cared about their puzzles. Make a mistake, leave them out of the paper for a day, and the telephone wouldn’t stop ringing. Have a bad question — or a bad answer — and you wouldn’t hear the end of it.

We journalists like to think it’s the quality of our news reports that drives loyalty to our work. And that’s true. To a point. But an editor learns pretty quickly that it’s the features readers look forward to, the things they anticipate with pleasure, that keep many coming back for more.

I learned this at the start of my journalism career at a small afternoon daily newspaper in Albuquerque, N.M., before the Internet upended local journalism. The then-senior editors, who were younger than I am today, taught me something that their mentors had taught them: A newspaper editor needs to pay special attention to comics, games and puzzles. My teachers treated the travelers who dropped by a couple of times a year carrying new offerings for the paper with respect, and tried to make their visits worthwhile. They didn’t want to send them away empty-handed, because they wanted to make sure that when they had something hot, they’d bring it to them first.

Papers in those days had geographic exclusivity. The comics, puzzles and games at that time were the same in communities across the country. It wasn’t the content that was unique. It was the ability to deliver them to a local area that gave papers their franchise.

By the time I became the editor of a metropolitan daily newspaper, the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, the web had already started to disrupt our business. But I followed the lead of my predecessors and tried to treat syndicate sales people as men bearing gifts. (They were all men.) I always bought something, and made sure to hold on to it long enough for them to earn their commission.

Almost nobody in the newsroom spent any time on the features we bought. Nor did the business side. They were like furniture. But there was still competition between papers in many markets, including Denver, and if you missed out on a winner, it could mean the other paper would gain a leg up.

Now newspapers, at least online, appear to have lost this franchise. Readers can go directly to a national or international source for their puzzles or comics. And I find myself on the other side of the desk. I’m no longer the buyer. I’m the seller, representing a software company I cofounded while a senior fellow in the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Program at Stanford University. I had gone there four years ago from The Washington Post, where I was managing editor in charge of digital and local news, to focus on researching ways to meet the challenges facing newsrooms, with a particular interest in newer platforms, such as mobile.

I know that may sound ridiculous today. But believe it or not, four years ago people in newsrooms still didn’t see the smartphone as their primary platform. The story about my appointment at Stanford said mobile was a newer platform, and it was true. It wasn’t as dominant as it is today, even though some could see that’s what it would become. At Stanford, I met Sudheendra Hangal, then associate director of the Computer Science Department’s MobiSocial Computing Laboratory, and together we pursued a research project to create a deeply personalized mobile news report. It was a challenge — and fun. Nuzzel, if you know it, is a much simpler and cleaner version of what we were trying to develop. We’d brainstorm in his office in the Computer Science building, and one day he told me about how he and his wife, Jaya, also an engineer, had the idea of using digital tools for teaching and learning Indian classical music. Jaya had created a crossword app, Puzzle Me Raga. When I saw it, I was taken. That, I thought, would have been something I would have wanted running a local news organization.

For the first time, it seemed, publishers without any expertise in the mechanics of creating a crossword could use their local expertise to generate unique puzzles for their specific audience. They could create puzzles off the news, their news. I saw what seemed like tremendous potential, a new digital way to build loyalty. A way to overcome the collapse of geographic exclusivity, to replace it with exclusive content, puzzles that could be created by staff, readers and even advertisers. And so began a partnership with Sudheendra and Jaya. With Sudheendra as CEO and Jaya as CTO, together we launched Amuse Labs and our PuzzleMe platform, a web-based tool anybody could use to create their own multimedia crossword. Anybody, even a child, could add video, audio or photo clues. They could theme their puzzles around their own interests and present them with beautiful backgrounds. The days of black and white appeared to be behind us.

Three years later, we’ve worked with all kind of organizations across four continents — newspapers, websites, universities, schools, government agencies — trying to find what is known as product market fit, in other words a product that satisfies the needs of users. The initial product did exactly what Sudheendra and Jaya hoped. By making it possible to share their love for Indian classical music, and to teach others about the tradition using audio clues, it satisfied their needs. We thought it was obvious many others would want to be able to do something similar. We saw an opportunity to democratize the creation of puzzles for any kind of digital device: smartphone, tablet or computer.

But it didn’t turn out to be so simple. Most publications, with shrinking newsrooms, said they didn’t have the time. Some worried about violating the copyright for videos, music, or photos. Others just didn’t see the crossword as a digital era game, despite the success of The New York Times with its crosswords. They could only see black and white squares, where we saw film, music and photos enriching lives. Yes, we found customers, but as easy to use as we thought the software was, with as many improvements as we made, as excited as we were by its potential, we were still left wondering whether the software would take off.

Sometimes, I’ve learned, you have to take opportunity where you least expect it. And in the end that’s what happened to us. It turned out that although many newspapers weren’t interested in multimedia or creating their own puzzles, they did feel they hadn’t been successful bringing their traditional print crosswords to their digital audience. They were losing one of the very things that had kept audiences loyal for generations. And they didn’t know how much potential income they were losing as a result. (At the Times, about $10 million last year.) So we tried showing them that they could take their puzzles online and have them just as playable on their websites as they had been in print, the way The Times had.

We’ve been working with The Washington Post to refine the product to do exactly what The Post wants: Make it pleasurable to play their crosswords on any device, anywhere at any time. That’s not been easy. And it’s not what we started out to do. But this month, the Post began using our platform publicly for the first time. Maybe once other papers see what’s possible, they’ll think more seriously about our initial idea of creating their own puzzles, of going beyond the same puzzles other publishers offer. But if they don’t, at least the people I ride the bus and subway with every day between San Francisco and Berkeley, with nary a newspaper in site, will be able to enjoy an old-fashioned puzzle on their newfangled phones.

If they do, we’ll not only have product-market fit. We’ll also have restored a pleasure of an earlier era for a digital audience and, we hope, showed publishers another way to make money to support their journalism. Because while visitors to news sites might typically stay for just a couple of minutes, crossword players will stay for many times that, and that, even an old newspaper editor can tell you, is worth a lot.

John Temple is managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he is an adjunct associate professor. He was editor of the Rocky Mountain News from 1998 until it closed in 2009.

POSTED     June 2, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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