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Aug. 10, 2022, 10:06 a.m.
Business Models

“Puzzles pair well with reading the news”: Why news outlets are getting into games (again)

“Some subscribers would rather game than sift through the wreckage. Can you blame them?”

A Nieman Lab twofer: Pair this one with Lyz Lenz’s “Doing a little word puzzle as the world burns.” — LHO

The first crossword puzzle ever constructed ran in the December 21, 1913 edition of The New York World. It’s under the “Fun” section, and contains some hilariously outmoded Woodrow Wilson-era aphorisms. (For instance, a clue reading “The fiber of the gomuti palm” was answered with “Doh.”)

The basic appeal of a games page was the same then as it is now: Newspapers needed to broaden their utilitarian appeal beyond those interested in reading the daily tragedies and triumphs of their city and their nation. So, hidden in the depths beneath the front page, we could find baseball box scores, Peanuts panels, and, of course, a cornucopia of Sudoku, crosswords, and word searches. At last, people who were not interested in reading the news had a reason to purchase a newspaper, and that has remained the core business ambition of the media industry for as long as it has existed.

We are still lingering under the shadow of that fateful morning edition. For the last century, and especially over the past 20 years, publishing executives have done everything they can to scale beyond the meager business of reporting. Startups like BuzzFeed and Vox spearheaded the Facebook video feeding frenzy, which turned out to be a terrible decision. ESPN built restaurants in Orlando and Times Square, until customers made it clear that they did not want Ron Jaworski following them outside of the house. Playboy has ditched its editorial operation entirely, and today the URL redirects to an apparel site selling tie-dyed shirts emblazoned with the bunny logo. (You can pick up some NFTs while you’re there.)

These are the gambles of an industry that has been slowly eroded by cyberspace. The inborn precarity of digital media has forced everyone to entertain a few questionable business models — often burdened with a ridiculously short shelf life. But the solution currently in vogue is delightfully antique. Everywhere you look, newspapers, magazines, and websites are ramping up their games section. In January, Vulture introduced its own crossword, “Vulture 10×10,” which is designed to be solved over the course of a coffee break. The New York Times famously purchased Wordle at the beginning of the year, and continues to make additions to its overflowing backpages. (The latest addition? Chess puzzles.) The New Yorker, meanwhile, has retrofitted its crossword to be a recurring daily feature, and rolled out a pop trivia game, “Name Drop,” last summer.

There is no shortage of news in 2022. None of these initiatives are compensating for a dry period in political agitation, international catastrophe, or really, any of the stuff that could compel a customer to read some articles. Instead, it feels as if the opposite is true. As reporters continue to file stories from the frontlines of the great American crackup, as more Covid variants bubble to the surface, as the world continues to unspool at an alarming rate, media managers seem to have come to a humbling realization: Some subscribers would rather game than sift through the wreckage. Can you blame them?

“The first [New York Times] crossword puzzle ran in 1942, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The tradition of putting games into the paper as a diversion [has been around] from the tough news cycles of the 1940s to the tough news cycles of today,” Jonathan Knight, the man who has been in charge of the Times’ entire games operation since 2020, told me. “When news went digital, we focused more on the news, but now we’re getting back to that Sunday paper experience.”

Knight took an unorthodox path into newspapers. Before he came to the Times, he was a vice president at Zynga — the company responsible for some of the most profitably addictive games ever made (Farmville, Words With Friends, and so on). That DNA is all over the Times’ game section, which today resembles a suite of tasteful, scholastic brain teasers with a guiding hand behind the screen tracking one’s glacial progress like a string of Call of Duty victories. “You’ve solved eight Mondays in a row!” reads a caption currently plastered to my subscription, residue of my girlfriend’s dutiful morning crossword habit.

Knight speaks openly about the Times’ desire to reach 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027, which can only be realistically engineered by investing in terrain outside of the media’s traditional contours. Case in point, the Times’ Games-only subscription option, where you get access to the entire oeuvre of puzzles for $40 a year, has racked up over a million subscribers. Knight is helping the Times escape the boundaries of a news organization, transforming it into this omnivorous, all-consuming platform with fingers in every pot. It’s become a lifestyle brand rather than a paper, which is exactly what’s allowing it to grow.

“Our strategy is to be the essential subscription for curious people looking to engage and understand the world, and that goes beyond finding out what happened in the world and reading the news,” Knight said. “We’re having a lot of success with that strategy. The subscription bundle is about putting that front and center. We’re saying, ‘Hey, we know you’re interested in at least some, if not all, of these products we have to offer.'”

Knight’s conclusions bear out across the industry. Liz Maynes-Aminzade, the puzzles and games editor at The New Yorker, said that “subscribers who play the crossword or quiz every day are more likely to renew,” according to the magazine’s internal research — which she imagines is mirrored in the analytics of every other media company that has invested into a games section. (This gets to a larger point about the puzzle boom. Maynes-Aminzade noted that The New Yorker has a ton of data on the popularity and usage patterns of its digital games, which simply wasn’t possible when the crossword was bound to ink and paper.) That’s important ammunition, given how competitive the word-game wars have become in such a short amount of time.

“The groundswell does mean that people now have more options to choose from. I think this will make it all the more important for outlets to establish distinct identities for their games sections,” Maynes-Aminzade said. “The bar is getting higher, and generic games won’t necessarily be a draw if readers feel like they can do better elsewhere.”

There will be winners and losers in the games-section renaissance, in the same way there are casualties in any of the fiscal schemes that tell the story of digital media. Journalists tend to get cynical about the bailouts and off-ramps devised by upper management to juice flagging traffic numbers or dwindling ad dollars — particularly when those strategies exist outside the work of reporting itself. One of the recurring, unavoidable facts of this line of work is that there is a hard ceiling on how many people want to read the news, and that contradiction, combined with the VC-honed mandate of expansion, has given rise to a wealth of bad ideas. The bloat and then the contraction, the hires and then the layoffs, the pivot to video and then the pivot to oblivion. I mean, The New Yorker’s union earned a contract last year after 31 months of bargaining; I can understand how it might have been frustrating to watch the company fuss over the crossword during those graveyard shifts around the table.

But Maynes-Aminzade also reminded me that we’ve been solving puzzles in the newspaper for 109 years. Today, the games section doesn’t reek of the same rot that has poisoned so many other, grosser attempts to make money in the media (though, 100 years ago, some disagreed). Look around you: The Ringer is currently sheathed in sponsorships from sportsbooks, and Vice partnered with cigarette giant Philip Morris. The Austin Chronicle, the weekly I wrote for while studying at the University of Texas, recently got into hot water after publishing an advertisement for an “Asian mail order bride” service. The prospects are grim, as they always seem to be, and we could do a hell of a lot worse than our wages being underwritten by a crossword.

“More and more media companies do seem to be catching onto the idea that games can help support their publications as a whole. [But] I don’t see the current interest in games as a bubble,” Maynes-Aminzade said. “Game sections are pretty tried and true: Plenty of magazines and newspapers have had them for decades. It’s not a new idea that lots of people like to mix crosswords into their media diets. Puzzles just pair well with reading the news, and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.”

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. He has previously written for Nieman Lab about digital media companies going public, female video game journalists, Mel Magazine, Stat, Newsmax and OAN, and Study Hall.

POSTED     Aug. 10, 2022, 10:06 a.m.
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