The BuzzFeed crossword, which launched in October, promised a millennial upheaval to the musty crossword genre: an internet-native, slang-fluent, pop-culture-obsessed puzzle aimed at young solvers. There was hope, given BuzzFeed’s large amounts of traffic, that it would serve as a meaningful competitor to the starchy, hegemonic New York Times crossword. “BuzzFeed Is Revolutionizing the Crossword Puzzle,” an Observer headline declared last year.
It didn’t. Yet while BuzzFeed’s puzzle revolution fizzled, a devoted band of ragtag agitators remains devoted to the cause. A vibrant ecosystem of independent crosswords — “indies” — exists on the internet, its component puzzles multiplying and evolving, finding their niche and trying to find ways to survive. And some of them can outrate the gold standard over at the Times.
“I think of the indie world like we’re all craft beer brewers,” Brendan Emmett Quigley, a professional puzzle constructor, told me. The Times is a Budweiser lager; the indies are small-batch saisons and IPAs.
“My favorite thing about indie puzzles is the timeliness,” Neville Fogarty, an avid indie solver who helped found the Indie 500 crossword tournament, told me. Indie puzzles don’t have to wait months in a publication queue, as they would at the Times. They also aren’t subject to the stylistic constraints of a large media institution. Topics and themes, however recent, modern, niche or profane, are fair game. Nor are they subject to the physical constraints of a major newspaper. With few exceptions, all daily Times puzzles use 15-by-15 grids with rotational symmetry, a convention indies can and do break.
. . . .
“Papers were dying, papers were dropping their crosswords.” And so some crossword designers decided to go it alone. A risky proposition, but one that came with aesthetic upside. These sylvan constructors could rewrite the stylebook. “Crosswords were staid, you know? As much as I enjoyed them, there was always this feeling that the voice of the Times was not my generational voice. It was like, what if you made a crossword about rap, or something? That felt really radical at the time.”
Criticism of the Times puzzle seems to have expanded of late, beyond the stylistic and into the political. It’s not just that the Times puzzle is staid, or geared toward olds. It’s been accused of tone deafness on issues of race and gender.
. . . .
But that the indies are well-received doesn’t make them well-compensated. They’re wrestling with the same confusion about sustainable business models as all the other media upstarts.
The New York Times has it relatively easy, with nearly 200,000 digital crossword subscribers, good for over $2 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2016, according to a company press release. When you figure in the hardcopy subscriptions and newsstand purchases due to the puzzle, plus the countless book collections, the Times crossword puzzle is almost certainly worth well north of $10 million a year. (The Times wouldn’t comment beyond what was disclosed in the press release.) Little of that money goes to the constructors: At its rate of $300 for a daily puzzle and $1,000 for a Sunday, I estimate that a little less than $150,000 a year is paid to the crossword constructors themselves.