Digital Publishing: For The New York Times, Puzzle and Cooking Apps are Leading to More Subscriptions

By: Rob Tornoe

Nine across. 10 letters. The clue is, “The New York Times is attracting digital subscribers with theirs.”

The answer, of course, is crosswords. Specifically, the time honored, hand-curated puzzles that have appeared in the pages of the Grey Lady for more than 75 years. Only now, those puzzles are increasingly driving digital revenue as part of the newspaper’s standalone crossword app.

The Times has settled on a successful content strategy of offering a miniature puzzle (complete with an addictive timer) for free that acts as a stepping stone to the digital version of the paper’s daily offering, which is actually uploaded the night before.

“A lot of people find the crossword to be intimidating,” said Eric von Coelln, executive director of puzzles. “(The mini crossword is) kind of fun, it’s kind of quick, and you realize you can do crossword puzzles and I think that opens up the door to users saying, ‘Oh, I may try these other types of puzzles.’”

Von Coelln much of the success of the standalone app to the hand-curated puzzles overseen by wordplay celebrity Will Shortz, the Times crossword editor since 1993 and NPR’s resident puzzle master. The Times continues to accept puzzle submissions from anybody, so Shortz oversees an editing process that receives as many as 80 puzzles submissions a week.

“We invest in and create this really great curated handmade product,” said von Coelln. “We know there’s value in it, and people want to pay for that value.”

Back in May, the Times also introduced an addictive new daily word puzzle called “Spelling Bee” into its crossword app. According to von Coelln, his team is prototyping a new game each month, and at any given time, there are two to three new puzzles in various stages of development.

It’s a content strategy based around the idea of getting readers and players to form a habit with its products. So far, despite a few missteps like the shuttered NYT Now app, it appears to be paying off for the industry’s leader when it comes to digital revenue.

In June, the Times announced that more than 400,000 people have subscribed to its digital crossword puzzle app, and that more than 2 million people are playing crosswords digitally each month. That’s an astounding 88 percent increase in subscribers since June 2016, when the app had about 212,000 online subscribers.

At $6.95 a month (or $39.95 a year), those numbers begin to add up to real revenue coming in for the Times. According to their latest quarterly financial statement, revenue from its crossword and cooking apps was $4.84 million, a 63.6 percent increase from the $2.96 million the Times earned during the first quarter of 2017.

More importantly, from a business standpoint, is that more than 50 percent of the people who have subscribed to the standalone crossword puzzle app do not have a subscription, digital or otherwise, to the Times itself. That’s helping the company drive a broader audience to its other subscription products.

During the first quarter of 2018, 40,000 of the 139,000 new digital subscriptions the Times received came from users who had already downloaded either the crossword or cooking app. Not only are they generating revenue on their own, but both products are also driving digital subscriptions on the Times’ main news product itself.

“I think the New York Times is smart,” said von Coelln. “Getting a paying relationship with a user allows us to over time to expand and let them see all the things the New York Times can bring.”

The emphasis on its puzzle offerings is just one part of a broader strategy to take some of the less-newsy features the paper is also known for and attempt to make them work as standalone subscription experiences.

Another great success has been the digital overhaul of their online recipe section, which has been transformed in recent years into a vibrant digital product experience valuable enough for readers to pay $5 a month to access. This is in an age when most online recipes are free and just a simple Google search away.

“Both crosswords and cooking are kind-of candy subscription experiences because people play the crossword regularly and the people who subscribe to cooking are regular home cooks,” said Alexandra MacCallum, head of new products and ventures. “So we’re able to have users develop a habit with both of those products.”

The Times is currently hard at work preparing its third product launch: a vertical devoted to parenting that’s scheduled to debut sometime next year. Unlike its cooking and crossword apps, which are built on archives of content going back years, the parenting product doesn’t have a database of content to draw upon. MacCallum says that’s okay because what’s more important than an archive of content is creating an experience that can form a real habit with its readers, ultimately leading to a subscription.

“We’re really focused on how we can create an area digitally that we can have users create a real habit in, and then figure out how we can bring the advantages of the New York Times to that area,” she said. “With parenting, we think that parents are looking for trust and authority, and the Times’ experts and research and reporting intends to really bring that to the parenting space.”

The Times picked parenting as its next standalone product back in the fall of 2017, after undertaking a study of the habit-forming potential of 15 different verticals, which included books, travel, home and personal finance. MacCallum said in the second half of this year, the new product group will figure out how to prioritize among the rest of the vertical candidates moving forward and decide which ones her team will tackle next.

All this shows what newspapers have known for a long time—that part of the reason readers subscribe to their print products is the fondness for its lighter offerings, such as comics, travel and yes, pet photos. We live in an age when fun content produced by serious media outlets is quickly decried by many in the newsroom as “clickbait,” but the Times’ success is a reminder that news organizations shouldn’t overlook lighter fare that can provide both engagement and an opportunity to grow digital subscription revenue. 

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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Published: August 24, 2018

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