Games are proving their influence on news and technology sites

What's a five-letter word for an activity that media and technology companies are increasingly relying on to acquire subscribers and keep them coming back?






Apple released a series of word-focused puzzles to its subscription news service last fall. LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, launched a series of word games this spring. News sites including Morning Brew, The Washington Post, Vox Media and The Boston Globe have added new puzzles beyond the crossword and have hired staff to work on the games. The publication you're reading has also invested in a collection of puzzles.

It's not all fun and games, exactly. For media companies, games are a way to attract new customers as their sites face declining traffic from Google, X and Meta, which have pulled back from emphasizing news. For tech companies with publishing offerings, puzzles are a way to attract new subscribers while engaging existing users who may not return to the apps daily.

“A publication is more than the stories it produces. It's an experience to look forward to, a pleasure,” said John Temple, a former journalist and co-founder of Amuse Labs, which sells a software platform that helps publishers create puzzles. “They want to recreate the same experience for people satisfactory that they could have experienced in the years spent doing a crossword in the newspaper.”

The addition of games and puzzles has become central to many publishers' strategies in recent years, with a surge of momentum in recent months with the intervention of Apple and LinkedIn. As these news and technology companies compete for consumer attention against competitors like Netflix, Spotify and other forms of digital entertainment, it's likely that others will follow.

Many of the games aren't Call of Duty-style shooters or the next Angry Birds. They are often word or logic puzzles, which can help people feel a sense of accomplishment in exercising their intellectual muscles. Even for companies with publishing products, puns aren't drastically different from their core businesses.

There are the first signs that the games are working. At The New York Times, new subscriptions for non-news products – which include subscriptions to Games, Cooking, Wirecutter and The Athletic – outpaced new subscriptions for its core news offering in the first quarter. (The Times doesn't provide numbers just for game subscriptions.) Apple and LinkedIn said, without providing details, that early results are promising.

Publishers have a long history of adding games to their news offerings. For more than a century, newspapers have included puns and puzzles. The New York World published the first crossword puzzle on its “Entertainment” page on December 21, 1913.

One exception was the Times, which promoted itself as “strictly a newscard for intelligent and thoughtful people. This changed after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II. Times editors said that because of the news-heavy environment, readers may want a diversion from the relentlessly grim headlines. In February 1942, the Times introduced its first crossword puzzle, which became a hallmark of the paper.

Publishers and tech platforms today are finding the news cycle equally challenging, with the wars in Israel-Gaza and Ukraine, as well as the upcoming US presidential elections and the culture wars surrounding them. Information and technology executives have sought to provide at least some refuge, however brief, from what can seem like an endless stream of bad news.

“News and current events are often characterized by intractable things,” said Ross Trudeau, the puzzle editor of Apple News. “Puzzles are a way of saying that some of these problems have solutions, even elegant ones.”

(Mr. Trudeau comes from a bona fide media lineage. His parents are Garry Trudeau, best known for creating the comic strip “Doonesbury,” and Jane Pauley, a television host and journalist.)

The Times has had successful games in addition to its crossword puzzle. They include homemade creations like Spelling Bee, in which users create as many words as possible with a handful of letters, and Connections, in which people group together a series of words that have a similar connection. In 2022, the Times purchased Wordle, a word guessing game that was a surprise hit, from its creator, who was an engineer at Reddit. The game went viral as people shared their Wordle scores on social media.

Others have noticed. Last fall, Apple launched a daily series of crossword puzzles for subscribers to Apple News+, its paid subscription service that curates articles from partner publishers. (The Times left the program in 2020.) Last month, Apple introduced a spelling game, Quartiles, in which users spell words based on a confusing series of fragmented word squares.

“The more value we add to Apple News+, the more subscribers we get, which benefits our publishing partners,” said Lauren Kern, editor in chief of Apple News. Apple has also integrated Apple News+ puzzles into Games Center, its social gaming network, which allows users to compete with friends for high scores.

LinkedIn followed with three puzzle games, which are prominently displayed on its website and mobile apps. Dan Roth, LinkedIn's editor-in-chief, said the goal was to keep content in line with the company's “professional network” branding, while giving people a reason to come back regularly and engage in conversations, both public that you private on the site.

“One of the main goals of LinkedIn is to bring people to the site, take the knowledge that's in their heads and share it with their network,” Roth said in an interview. “Sometimes you need to prime the pump to get people to start sharing, and adding games is a clear way to do that.”

The companies said their approach to making games started with humans. Apple trumpeted its diverse team of puzzle creators and contributors to appeal to a broader audience and said it tried to avoid crossword jargon in puzzle clues.

LinkedIn has hired Paolo Pasco, a longtime crossword builder and recent Harvard graduate, as its first games publisher. The Times highlighted its gaming team by showcasing the often low-tech process of handwriting and building the most popular puzzles on the site.

All of these companies are in the business of building new habits for consumers. This is especially true for new casual customers, who may bring in their apps with games but hope to stick around long enough to introduce them to other products, such as podcasts, sports and even hard news.

“When we see subscribers engaging with both games and news in a given week, we're seeing some of the best long-term subscriber retention compared to this model,” said Jonathan Knight, head of games at The Times. “So we are doing a lot of things to encourage this behavior.”

People need to feel good when they visit apps, many companies said, even if it's the fleeting but satisfying moment of completing a crossword puzzle at its best.

“It's time well spent and you're deciding how it fits into your life,” Knight said. “Do one puzzle a day. Put it down and go down to the next one whenever you want. It's a real sense of accomplishment and people can feel good about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *