Down but Not Out: The Uncertain Future of the Crossword Puzzle

“It’s still older college-educated white people who dominate the solver base, and I don’t think apps change that,” Sharp remarked. “It’s worth noting that solver demographics might look very different if you move off of the Times and more elite puzzles.”

But apps are the future of crosswords, and puzzle aficionados realize this. According to a Pew report, tablet usage has spiked among those over 65, with 27 percent of senior citizens owning a device; only 18 percent of seniors own a smartphone. But paper is still the preferred method by which seniors get their news: while 59 percent go online every day, they lag behind their younger counterparts. Something, however, gets muddled in using a tablet versus newsprint, and puzzlers worry about the loss of the ink-on-paper experience.

“If you read the paper, then you stumble across [a crossword] all the time, even if you ignored it,” Sharp, an English professor at Binghamton University, said. “You’d know it was there. Then one day, maybe you’re bored and its empty boxes beckon. I remember watching my grandmother solving a crossword, and I could see it was different from other activities because she had the paper folded a certain way, she had a pencil in her hand. Today, all activities look the same—it’s just people bent over keyboards.”

The New York Times is arguably the leading crossword in the puzzling world—and those who seek it out are still, largely, gravitating toward paper. The Times has also ventured into the world of digital solving, but don’t think this means the newspaper has figured it all out: Even its venerable post as a crossword doyen hasn't translated paper success to the digital world, as it proved last month when users "revolted" over the 2.0 launch of a widely despised crossword app.

Search for a crossword app and the number one result is Crosswords Classic,” a product of Stand Alone, Inc. Crosswords Classic acts as an aggregator of newspaper crosswords, from high-brow publications to lesser known, popularly accessible puzzles such as Australia's The Stickler Weekly and Glutton for Pun. It’s the best-rated app of its kind in the iTunes Store and even boasts admiration from—surprise!—The New York Times, which has acknowledged it as the “…definitive source for puzzles for iOS.”

Here’s where the Gray Lady might be doing it wrong: Crosswords Classic costs $9.99 for a one-time download (plus extra should the puzzler want access to additional puzzles); the Times’ crossword app costs about $40 per year. While The New York Times declined to offer statistics about how many people are using its crossword app, it faces clear competition from others in the digital space. Sharp points to a whole slew of crosswords that exist purely online, arguing that the subculture of Internet-only crosswords might pump life back into the puzzle. “Independent [organizations, like the American Values Club and Fireball] can do things mainstream puzzles can’t—they tend to have a more contemporary and less ‘censored’ vibe,” Sharp said. “This seems likely to hook younger solvers.”

While crossword puzzles may be associated with the elderly, the lonely, and/or the mad genius type, Connor argues that solving one is, in fact, a social activity—solvers often reach out to family members and friends to get context for clues. “When you look at the first crossword puzzle, it seems cute that it had to include instructions on how to complete the grid,” Connor says. “What the experience makes you realize is how natural the practice of solving has become.”

Both Connor and Sharp lament the potential death of crosswording, with Connor going so far as to worry whether baby boomers might be the last crosswording generation: "As the older solvers die, how will the new potential solvers discover the pleasure of puzzling?"

Then again, the future of puzzling may be as fluid as the form itself. "Abstract puzzles like sudoku tend to be the same thing every time, but crossword constructors have all of language as their toolkit," Connor notes. "The puzzles, like the English language, are constantly refreshed, with TWERK and BOEHNER enriching the lexicon just as LINDY HOP and GILLETT did before them."

*This story has been updated to clarify the origins of the crossword puzzle. It was invented in the United States, not in Britain. 

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Tanya Basu is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic.

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