Crossworld News: Changes at the Times

Regular News & Notes tomorrow, but the banner news of the week is a shock announcement from the New York Times: online crossword subscribers will lose access to two weekly variety puzzles–cryptics and acrostics among them–at the end of this month, and the archives, which date back to the late 1990s, will be removed. Access for print subscribers will be unchanged.

The decision is difficult to understand from the outside. The Times will continue to publish these puzzles, just not online. It is disappointing, as the applet for Acrostic solving is the best anywhere and a game-changer for the format, which can be tedious and prone to frustrating transposition errors when solving on paper. And it plain means subscribers are getting less for our money now.

An edit to the bare-bones initial announcement cited technical challenges in supporting these puzzles, low engagement among online subscribers, and a promise that the move would free up capacity for “other offerings, ” while a stock email response from the Customer Care team claims “the complex nature of these puzzles … are best solved in a printed format” and offers 50% off the first year of a new Home Delivery subscription.

These reasons ring hollow for us. Low online engagement is no surprise, given how hard these puzzles are to find online if you don’t already know they’re there. They’ve never been available on the mobile apps. Prescriptive hogwash about the “best” way to solve flies in the face of former editor Will Weng’s famous “It’s your puzzle” line while evidencing such an unfamiliarity with the Acrostic format that it’s hard to believe it’s sincere. From a technical standpoint, Cryptics and Puns & Anagrams, at least, can be presented in the exact same format as the daily crossword.

For what it’s worth, it’s likely many solvers can access these puzzles through their local library systems without needing to resort to a print subscription. The archives are accessible until 26 February, so there’s a chance to download copies of past puzzles before they disappear.

That said, the Times is not the only place to find these puzzles. For Acrostics, the Wall Street Journal provides a monthly puzzle, Dave Murchie has been running biweekly at Monday Fills for years, and Alex Boisvert’s panoply of tools at Crossword Nexus includes an Acrostic Generator that has spurred a boom in the format among indie constructors. Indeed, Boisvert has spun up a Patreon subscription service in response to this news that will deliver semimonthly acrostics.

There are too many cryptic options to list, but the The New Yorker‘s are fresh, approachable and not going anywhere. Here at Daily Crossword Links, cryptics, acrostics, and other variety puzzles can be found in the last two sections of the daily email.

In the era of the Spelling Bee, Wordle, and breathless quarterly updates about subscriber numbers, it’s hard to think of a way that a subscription has improved for crossword solvers in recent years as longstanding features are dropped and promised “other offerings” don’t materialize in return. The crossword’s editorial team is top notch, but other outlets are closing the gap in quality and consistency, if not in mainstream recognition, as a boom in constructing interest is also leading to greater numbers of skilled editors.

The Times puzzle enjoys a massive subscriber base and public esteem. Anyone following this site must be aware of the “gold standard” Homeric epithet that follows the puzzle in media coverage. The Times itself engages in a certain amount of self-mythologizing on top of their external recognition, but seems unable to decide between using its massive pulpit to serve as a standard bearer for the art form and the community, or just claiming to be one while the cold numbers of clicks and subscriptions hold more sway. This week, it’s the latter.

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