Digital Publishing: As Crosswords Move Online, Publishers Can Still Make a Profit

By: Rob Tornoe

If you’re a fan of newspapers, you should come with me next time I visit my in-laws at the Jersey Shore.

Devoted news hounds, my wife’s mother and father still buy four newspapers a day and enjoy learning about what’s happening in the world the same way they have their entire lives. But while it’s true that they like keeping up with current events, the addiction that continues to fuel their subscription spending are the crosswords.

Puzzles, games and comics have long been a staple of newspapers and beloved by their most loyal readers, and I’m sure most editors can relate to how angry subscribers get when the results of the previous day’s crossword doesn’t appear in the paper.

As audiences move from the print product to digital, and more specifically to news consumption on mobile devices, newspapers run the risk of leaving behind one of their most popular franchises just at the time they’re looking to give loyal readers an incentive to sign up for digital subscriptions.

Syndication companies have been offering digital crossword puzzles for many years now, but online newspapers lack the geographic monopoly that allowed them to print the same crossword as hundreds of other newspapers across the country. Now those other companies are just a click away, and media companies need to come up with inventive ways of making the crossword experience unique and easy to use across an increasing array of computers, tablets and smart phones.

Enter John Temple, the former editor of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News and ex- managing editor of digital and local news at the Washington Post.

When Temple started his John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship Program at Stanford University just four years ago, a press release described mobile as a “newer” platform for news. Now 85 percent of U.S. adults get news on a mobile device, according to the data crunchers at the Pew Research Center, including about two-thirds of seniors age 65 and older.

While at Stanford, Temple became friends with Sudheendra Hangal and his wife, Jaya, who created a crossword app called Puzzle Me Raga with the idea of using it as a fun and engaging way to teach readers about Indian classical music. Temple was blown away by what he saw.

“I knew from my days as an editor how important puzzles and games were to creating loyal readers,” Temple said. “You want them to develop a habit, and crosswords can be a big way to kickstart that habit online.”

The three partnered together to form Amuse Labs and create Puzzle Me, a digital crossword platform that makes it easy for any reader, product or editor to create a puzzle on the fly in just minutes and publish it across multiple platforms.

One of the company’s big clients is the Washington Post, which uses Amuse Labs’ platform to take unique print puzzles by current Sunday magazine crossword constructor Evan Birnholz and legendary creator Merl Reagle and recreate them online, complete with a high-paying 30 second video pre-roll ad to monetize the experience.

“Those ads come in at a high CPM rate because the time spent on the puzzle is much longer than a typical story, and we know people will watch the pre-roll to get to the puzzle,” Temple said. “It’s a mild deterrent.”

It certainly appears there is money sitting on the table for newspapers publishers looking at potential ways to vary their revenue streams. At the New York Times, crosswords account for about $10 million in annual revenue, and according to a recent report by the research firm MarketsandMarkets, the market for “gamification” is expected to reach $11.1 billion by 2020.

With Puzzle Me, individuals and small publishers can create puzzles for free, while news organizations with an eye on creating revenue or reader loyalty pay a subscription fee, which comes with added support, help in creating more customized puzzles and detailed access to analytics. The platform also offers video pre-roll ads and targeted display ads in an easy-to embed iframe.

“The puzzle can truly become profitable for the publisher, including the small cost to pay us for using the software,” Temple said.

The power of the platform is newsrooms no longer need a crossword creator to spend hours building an engaging puzzle. New crosswords can be built by just about anyone in the newsroom using just 10-15 questions and answers, allowing them to focus on local news and events relevant to an organization’s specific audience.

The possibilities are endless. Newsrooms could create an engaging puzzle around a breaking news situation or a popular local event or focused on a local sports team. Over in the advertising department, an enterprising sales team could use Puzzle Me to create engaging native ads for local businesses or to promote an important charity in the community.

The Post uses Amuse Labs’ technology in a very traditional way: to recreate their print crossword puzzles online across multiple devices. But Temple hopes editors experiment with Puzzle Me to come up with inventive ways to use the platform, including as a unique way to tell a story.

“Alternative story forms is an important new area because we know that the print centric headline-deck-narrative format is not the only way to tell the story,” Temple said. “People learn better by doing.

So far, Amuse Labs has secured several clients across the globe that are using its crossword platform to create puzzles to engage and interact with readers. El País, the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Spain, is using Puzzle Me to gamily the news. La Liga, the top division of the Spanish soccer league, creates crosswords featuring trivia about the league and recent developments. Outside of newspapers, medical schools have been using the platform to teach their students about anatomy, and Amuse Labs has deals with clients as varied as Spanish’s premiere soccer league to Desimartini, one of India’s largest movie websites.

“For years, puzzles have been generic, with some lower-level person left responsible for getting them into the paper,” Temple said. “It requires a leap for news organizations to see the value online, but if they do, it could certainly be worth their while.”

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 18, 2017

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