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An interview with New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz

Staff Writer

Published: Thursday, March 4, 2010

Updated: Monday, March 8, 2010 11:03


Photo courtesy of Hayley Gold

New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz

To read about crossword puzzles in the modern age, click here.

Hayley Gold/The Chronicle (TC): A lot of newspapers are folding right now and the budget for puzzle space is often going down. Do you feel that crosswords will suffer?

Will Shortz (WS): There are lots of answers to that. First of all for the New York Times the crossword is a source of profit. Everyone knows that the puzzles are an attraction for the newspaper.  Lots of people subscribe to The New York Times and other newspapers specifically for the puzzle and it's a fairly inexpensive feature.  For The Times, the crossword is the only same-day editorial matter in the newspaper that the website charges for.  It costs $39.95 a year to subscribe to the crossword.   More than 50,000 people have subscribed to the puzzle this way.  So that's a lot of money for the newspaper.  There's also a 900 number clue line.  There are book reprints and The New York Times' crossword books are about the best selling crossword books in the country.  And all that money, all the reprints, flow to The Times, so the crossword is a very successful and profitable feature for the newspaper.

TC: For other papers though that's not the case, right?

WS: That's true. The New York Times is the only newspaper that is able to charge for its crossword.  But crosswords, I think, are one of the most important things that keep people coming to newspapers.  I say that because you can get your news anywhere.  It's faster and simpler to read your news online than it is in the newspaper unless your newspaper brings some special feature to the news.  It's the same news you can get anywhere. 

TC: As far as crosswords going purely digital…

WS: With a crossword and other pencil puzzles, it's generally better and more convenient to solve on paper.  There are lots of people doing crossword online now, but you can see all the clues at once when you are doing a crossword on paper, you can move around the grid more easily.  So crosswords and pencil puzzles are one of the things that newspapers do better than any other medium, and that includes online.  So this is a feature for newspapers and that's why some newspapers are running more than one crossword per day. A lot of newspapers nowadays have two, and on Sunday maybe three, crosswords for different skill levels and different styles.

TC: There have also been crossword apps coming out for Smartphones and things like that. Do you think they'll be popular considering that doing it by hand is a preferred method?

WS: There are lots of people who are doing the crossword, solving the crossword online and with the apps.  I think those are in addition to what's going on in newspapers.

TC: Do you think younger people solve it using the electronic methods?

WS: It's a good question.  My sense is that young people are doing them both ways.  There are a lot of teens and twenty-somethings submitting crosswords to the times for example.  I've published 19 different teens since I have been crossword editor, which is by far the most young people ever.  Up until me there were only three teens known to have crosswords published in The Times and now it is becoming a very common thing. Last spring, I did a crossword tour, if I might call it that, through three schools in the Northeast, conducting a crossword contest at Brown, Harvard and Yale, and I'll be doing this again this April.  And just lots of kids turn out for this.      Crosswords have this image of being for older solvers and it's not true.  Crosswords are really for everybody, and I see a lot of interest among young people in solving crosswords.

TC:  So you see a rise in the number of young people doing crosswords?

WS: I do.  I think it's partly because crosswords nowadays are more relevant than they were 20 years ago.  There's much less obscurity and kind of stupid words in puzzles.  The vocabulary in crosswords is just part of life. There's not much obscurity and when culture comes into the crossword it's everybody's culture.  You'll see the classical subjects like classical music and art and history and geography but you'll also see everything from rock'n  roll, TV, movies, sports, modern slang and everything in between.  So every solver nowadays sees part of his culture in the crosswords, and it makes puzzles relevant. 

A second thing is…my sense is that younger people have a shorter attention span than older people and in crosswords with a standard daily newspaper crossword you get 76 clues for 76 answers each on a different topic; your mind jumps from one thing to another, so I think crosswords are ideally suited to the modern age.

TC:    I know you try to add words and new lingo, but are there also words you find you have to delete…just information that's no longer "crossword elligble?"

WS:    Absolutely, lots of answers for that.  First of all there are names that used to be common in crosswords that are being phased out or eliminated all together.  Like "Charlie Chaplin's daughter who married Eugene O'Neill," her name is Oona, used to be very common in crosswords.  Now a days it's a sign of desperation.

Then there's something I'm trying to phase out for example, just as an example is SDI.  It used to be very common in crosswords – Strategic Defense Initiative.  That was the name for Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars Program", and it has historical importance but it really doesn't have any importance anymore because people don't know those initials. And if you are doing a puzzle and the answer SDI comes up, a younger solver may not even know what those letters stand for.  Those could just be three random letters to the alphabet and that sort of answer you don't see so much anymore.

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