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'New York Times' and the puzzle wars

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There's a pretty good chance you have recently played one of the New York Times puzzles because their games were played 8 billion times last year alone. The puzzles include Wordle, Spelling Bee, Connections and, of course, the crossword. But this is not all fun and games, though. Puzzles are a big business, and that is key in a moment where just about every media organization is feeling the financial crunch.

Before we talk about the New York Times and their strategy here, it is worth mentioning, especially on a Sunday, that NPR has a long relationship with the times puzzle editor Will Shortz, who we know better as our Weekend Edition puzzle master. Charlotte Klein is a media reporter for Vanity Fair. She's an author of the magazine's recent article "Inside The New York Times' Big Bet On Games." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CHARLOTTE KLEIN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: How would you best frame just how dominant The New York Times is and how many people are playing these games?

KLEIN: I mean, I think the interesting part of it is I feel like the popularity is sort of self-perpetuating. Like, I think that a lot of people play because other people are talking to them about it. For this piece I wrote, when I spoke to, like, the TikTok influencers, for example, they were talking about the fact that playing games by other news organizations - not to say they're necessarily better or worse, but because other people aren't playing them as much, you don't have that sort of competitiveness, versus everyone is playing Wordle. Everyone is playing Connections. So it's sort of a - this sort of more universal language.

DETROW: What are some of the factors that the Times is thinking about when they're thinking about adding a new game?

KLEIN: I mean, one of the first questions is, is this game fun? And obviously, that's a very hard question because fun is sort of different for everybody, but they need it to be both fun and also have people coming back for it, if that makes sense. So I think, you know, for Spelling Bee, I - even, you know, personally when I first started playing it, I would come back the next day in part even just to see the list of the words from the day before to see what I missed. So that's something that I think gets people coming back - Wordle, obviously, with streaks. So that's also, you know, a consideration.

DETROW: When you're talking about they, describe how big the games staff is at The New York Times at this point.

KLEIN: So the games staff of The New York Times is about 100 people right now. And for context, the games department now is about the same size as the business desk at the Times. The games department was initially just really the crossword. And then they realized, you know, the power of this audience they had because they had people who were already coming to them for just games. And I think that's where other news organizations are at a disadvantage, because the Times crossword has been such a, you know, part of the Times' brand and offering, you know, since World War II, which - when it was initially - it first ran, as, like, a way to give people some joy in the midst of very dire news.

DETROW: You're talking about the branding advantage that The New York Times has, but it seems like it's also the financial resources. Like, talking about a team of 100 people, it's going to be hard for many other outlets to scale up.

KLEIN: Yeah, definitely. I obviously think the resources are a big part, and the branding, of course. Like, it looks really, really good, and they play really well. And also, the people that the Times have hired are not, you know, newspaper people for the games department. It's like, their head of games is - Jonathan Knight is an industry veteran who worked on FarmVille and The Sims.

But yeah, I mean, it's definitely a consideration. I feel like places - you know, for example, The Washington Post, they have a few games. I think people like them. I don't know if they have an app. I don't think they have an app just for their games. That obviously takes a lot of time and resources to figure out how to do, and - but it also makes it easier for people to play. But I think it's like, if you're thinking about investing in a product, obviously, that will take away, to some degree, from other things. So like, that is, of course, a consideration that organizations will have to make, and probably one that the Times has an easier choice making because they have - they do have more money.

DETROW: Do you - are you coming through the other side of working on the story thinking this is the future for media organizations? - because we are obviously talking at a point when it's pretty dire for a lot of news outlets when it comes to revenue, when it comes to layoffs. Do you see a world where more and more big news organizations try and subsidize their journalism by growing out the gaming section?

KLEIN: I mean, yes and no. I think games is a big part of the Times' success, and it's only growing. And in that way, it's not really a contentious part of the newsroom because it's, you know, supporting the journalism. So I think a lot of - you know, while maybe in the past, some people would have sort of turned their nose up at the idea that their newspaper was putting out these games and was becoming known as a games factory instead of being known for, like, the investigative work they're doing, this - the reality in this - you know, at this point in the business is that you sort of need that.

I will say, though, like, I don't think games - it's that easy to just say that, you know, all these other news organizations struggling. If they put a lot of resources into games, they're going to find, you know, success. The future, I think, is not so much games, but it's just other revenue streams. I mean, we've seen the Times do this with other lifestyle things as well, like Wirecutter and Cooking, and it's more about a place leaning into whatever - you know, finding a niche and then leaning into that. And the niche would obviously have to make sense for the publication.

DETROW: Charlotte Klein is a media reporter with Vanity Fair. Thank you so much.

KLEIN: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "B FOR MY NAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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