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

The future of puzzling is as fluid as the English language itself. 
Simon Newman/Reuters

UPDATED, July 11, 8:44 p.m.

While the world warns of an impending print collapse, it might take down an innocent bystander with it—those little black and white squares that have long inhabited the back pages of newspapers and made themselves the primary Sunday-afternoon obsession of crossword nerds, for whom completing a puzzle is a bragworthy accomplishment.

Yes, the meager crossword, its unnerving simplicity belying a capability to wrench you mad with clues that speak of everything and nothing at once, is moving toward becoming a relic of the past.

Binghamton University English professor Michael Sharp is tactful about its potential demise. “I’m not predicting the death of the crossword, just saying that there are significant hurdles that the crossword faces in coming decades,” said Sharp, who writes the popular “Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle” under a pseudonym.

Crosswords are having quite the moment, despite hitting their 100th birthday late last year. Alan Connor, the British media personality, wrote a book released this week called, The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief, tracing the history of crosswords and their cultural significance. Developed by a British-born inventor in the United States, Connor argues the crossword is at its heart American.* The puzzles themselves are still distinct from one another, depending which country you're in. 

“British puzzles have more black squares, and the effect is not merely aesthetic—it means that the constructors can limit themselves to words found in a dictionary,” Connor explained. “The words in American puzzles interlock far more often, which means that they end up including proper nouns: unlikely places, extraordinary people, and everything from inventions to fragments of phrases.”

This construct has affected crosswords in two distinct, opposing ways: While significantly increasing the potential answers to a clue, the seemingly endless array of possibilities makes puzzles more complex—a quality that reflects the period of American excess in which crosswords came of age.

In the flapper era, crosswords inspired chic black-and-white clothes, Broadway revues, even church sermons. Their prevalence made crosswords the rock 'n roll of the 1920s—they were ubiquitous, either revered or reviled depending on whom you asked, with a 1924 London Times article gravely declaring the state of "An Enslaved America:"

"[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society... [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning 'molten rock' or a six-letter word meaning 'idler,' or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even—although as yet rarely—with hymnals for camouflage, in church."

America was obsessed. And this obsession drove the newspaper industry to adopt the crossword as a mainstay in its pages, making it the brainiac's game of choice—one that required mental gymnastics, luck, and determination. 

American crossword builders have been instrumental in keeping the puzzle alive—and relevant—today. Will Shortz, the legendary editor of The New York Times’ crossword column, has singlehandedly made crosswords sexy with pop culture references and slang that appeal to a modern audience. Shortz has famously included hip-hop references in his clues, and he's keen on selecting creative interns who help keep his column fresh. But having a wildly popular, imaginative genius behind the world’s premier crossword isn’t changing the fact, Connor says, that fewer people than ever before are crosswording. And just because crosswords are slowly losing their crotchety clues doesn’t mean that solver demographics have changed, according to Sharp.

“I don’t think you’ve had much of a change in terms of the audience the puzzle is pitched to,” Sharp said. “Cluing is more democratic, but reliance on ‘crosswordese’ and the reality of a generally older, generally white audience means that the puzzle just gravitates that way.”

Sharp, for his part, is suspicious of making crosswords more accessible, saying that just putting a puzzle on a mobile device “does nothing to the overall ‘accessibility’ of the puzzle.” A print loyalist, he notes that demographics of newspaper readership dictate the content of the crossword puzzle and therefore, what segment of the population is interested in it. In fact, he predicts the average puzzle solver is a college-educated white woman in her sixties.

“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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