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February 2, 2022updated 07 Nov 2023 5:41am

New York Times is not the only publisher betting on games to solve subscription growth puzzle

By Bron Maher

The New York Times has bought Wordle, the popular vocabulary puzzle responsible for grids of coloured emojis taking over social media feeds across the world.

But the US paper of record isn’t the only place investing in games as a lure for subscribers.

The Wordle purchase came shortly after The Telegraph added more puzzles to its weekend papers, while other publishers have been experimenting with brainteasers as a way to lock in paying readers or generate extra revenue.

In the magazine sector there were 22 puzzle title launches last year, according to John Simmonds, publisher of Bauer Media UK’s puzzles portfolio.

“Despite challenging conditions through 2021 the puzzle market continues to thrive with the increasing focus on puzzles by news brands both in the UK and internationally illustrating their enduring appeal and ability to drive revenues as well as support subscriber acquisition and retention,” Simmonds said.

The NYT said it paid a price “in the low seven figures” for Wordle, which creator Josh Wardle built to play with his partner.

The game allows players to make a maximum of six guesses about the identity of a five-letter word. The word, which changes daily, is the same for all players. This aspect gave Wordle a uniquely social quality for a word game – especially once Wardle made it easier to share scores using  now-ubiquitous grids of coloured squares. Between 1 November and its acquisition by the Times, the game went from 90 daily players to more than 1m.

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The game remains free to play. Nieman Lab asked the Times if that meant it would stay so forever. A spokesperson said: “At this time, we’re focused on creating added value to our existing audience, while also introducing our existing games to an all new audience that has demonstrated their love for word games.”

Prior to its Wordle buyout, the NYT’s games were already a popular sideline for the paper.

The company offers a games-only subscription for £25 a year, and it said in November that both its Games and Cooking products had reached 1m subscribers each. Overall the NYT reported having almost 8.4m in its latest quarterly report.

The NYT reported on Monday that the company’s games “were played more than 500 million times last year”.

The company said: “The Times remains focused on becoming the essential subscription for every English-speaking person seeking to understand and engage with the world… New York Times Games are a key part of that strategy.”

In the UK, The Telegraph announced in January that it would be closing the Sunday Telegraph print supplement Stella but adding “Britain’s biggest weekly puzzles section” to its Sunday offering. That eight-page addition accompanied four new pages of puzzles for its Saturday edition.

The company said the changes were prompted by “extensive reader research and reflect the needs and interests of our growing community of subscribers”. The Telegraph is targeting 1m subscriptions in 2023, and passed 720,000 in December.

Away from the print product, The Telegraph offers one free puzzle daily to any registered user. But for unlimited access, puzzlers need to pay either £2.99 monthly for access specifically to the games, or upgrade all the way to a “Digital Plus” subscription.

At an event on Tuesday by digital publishing company Twipe, Telegraph director of product Mathias Douchet suggested some of the brand’s products – for example puzzles or travel guides – could ultimately end up housed on a separate app.

Using a separate app is the strategy the otherwise un-paywalled Guardian has taken. The publisher departs from its reader donation model when it comes to puzzles, having launched a dedicated Puzzles app in February 2020, access to which costs £3.49 a month. The Guardian said at the time that puzzles were “the next step in the Guardian’s strategy to attract two million supporters by 2022”. 

A Guardian News and Media spokesperson told Press Gazette on Tuesday: “Guardian Puzzles is a relatively small part of our overall strategy currently, but we continue to look at how puzzles serve Guardian readers now and in future.”

Bauer Media UK last year launched three new crossword and puzzle magazines – Bigger Better Crosswords, Bigger Better Puzzles and Bella Puzzles Train Your Brain – on top of its at least six other puzzle and word search titles.

Bauer said it had identified “a gap in the market for an audience who enjoy crosswords but whose needs are not currently met”. Liz Watkinson, managing director of Bauer’s TV listings, real-life and puzzles titles, said in January 2021: “We have seen a growth in the puzzle magazine market over the last year, especially in lockdown as consumers found comfort and engagement in print puzzles.”

Picture: Steve Bardens/Getty Images

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