A recent report in Poynter offers a clue to an enduring puzzle: Does anyone want to read the New York Times? Seemingly not — nearly half the paper’s new subscribers from January through March came from Games and Cooking. One of the major drivers of that trend was “The Mini,” a free five-by-five daily crossword that can typically be solved in two minutes. Its author, Joel Fagliano, summed up the appeal: “You feel clever when you solve them.”
Making people feel clever turns out to be pretty lucrative. The Mini, the Times’ gateway game, has apparently converted idle word tricks into profitable word tricks. Poynter reports that “paid digital subscriptions to Games stand at 930,000” — which works out to be roughly $40 million a year in revenue, counting the $40 annual rate and the $5 monthly one. That’s 100,000 higher than Cooking (830,000 subscribers) and “with expansion plans in the works,” Poynter notes, “the one million mark is in sight.” In total, the Times has just hit eight million subscribers.
In that three-month span, Games and Cooking accounted for 40 percent of new paid digital subscribers. That percentage jumps higher when you include their podcasts: out of 142,000 net added subscribers, 65,000 came from the Times’ Cooking, Games, and Audio products, according to a recent second-quarter financial report. And as the Times notes, the second quarter is historically their “softest” of the year — so that ratio may even underestimate the appeal of their puzzles. In their fourth quarter report from last year, those same verticals brought in some 202,000 new people.
There’s nothing wrong with the New York Times finding its niche among language gamers who only occasionally read. We support any business plan that allows the Times to keep publishing future Nobel Laureate Maureen Dowd and those legends at “The Hunt” who find endlessly innovative ways to stretch the meaning of “budget.” That’s what wordplay can get you.