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Why the New York Times is forging connections with gamers as it diversifies its audience

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The New York Times has had such notable traffic to its games that some observers have speculated that the newspaper is on its way to becoming a gaming company. While this isn’t quite the case, the Times is clearly building out its games section as part of its audience diversification strategy.

Games have been part of the New York Times’ portfolio ever since the newspaper published its first crossword in 1942. In 2022, the company acquired Wordle to bolster its gaming section, integrating the wildly popular word-guessing game into the NYT Games app alongside other puzzles such as Spelling Bee and Sudoku. In 2023, the Times introduced Connections, which quickly became its second-most-popular game after Wordle. (A New York Times representative declined to comment on this story.)

The New York Times appears to have embraced its role as a gaming destination. In February 2022, the publisher renamed its official gaming Twitter account from NYT Crosswords to NYT Games, a clear acknowledgment of the expansion of the Times’ gaming products. In August 2022, it added Wordle to the NYT Crosswords app. By March 2023, the app had been renamed NYT Games, with NYT head of games Jonathan Knight telling Digiday that Wordle alone had brought “tens of millions” of new users into the Times fold.

By December 2023, the majority of global time spent within official New York Times apps was in NYT Games, according to numbers estimated by the data analytics firm YipitData. It was this app traffic figure that sparked the recent wave of discourse surrounding the Times’ transformation into a gaming company after entrepreneur and media industry expert Matthew Ball tweeted it March 31.

When reached for comment, Ball contextualized his observation about the Times by pointing out that the estimated total app engagement time does not take into account other forms of engagement with New York Times content, such as podcast consumption, meaning it’s likely that gaming activity does not actually account for the bulk of the Times’ online traffic. 

The rise of NYT Games is part of the Times’ wider push to diversify its editorial offerings beyond hard news and op-eds. Much like the majority of NYT Games content is now available only to subscribers, the company has similarly paywalled content from content verticals or titles such as food (NYT Cooking) and sports (The Athletic), prompting the communities that have formed around those verticals and titles to open their wallets.

The New York Times has historically taken advantage of these services’ popularity by bundling them into packages for prospective subscribers. Bundling helps push subscribers who would otherwise pay a smaller fee for one specific service to commit to more lucrative packages, with readers potentially benefitting thanks to the bundles’ expanded access to NYT products.

NYT Games and NYT Cooking, along with The Athletic, are some of the many offerings the Times has bundled elsewhere, such as movie listings, stock prices, sports scores, weather forecasts and classifieds, said Ball, who was an investor in The Athletic.

“Most media businesses diversify into adjacent (and sometimes only kind of adjacent) markets, and this tends to be the best way to strengthen the core business as well,” Ball said.

NYT Games also has an avid fan base. When it comes to puzzle games, the quality of New York Times games is so far above the competition that they may as well not exist. Among the seven NYT Games users who spoke to Digiday for this article, only one had ever tried out On the Record, the Washington Post’s own in-house gaming product that launched last year.

“The New York Times, to me, is a badge of quality in general,” said Evan Schwartz, head of content for the agency Kingsland, who told Digiday he had completed 2,500 New York Times crosswords during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “[NYT crossword editor] Will Shortz is the celebrity of cruciverbalism, and so there’s almost this halo effect around the other games — it feels like they’ve all got his stamp of approval.”

Since acquiring Wordle, The New York Times has used its gaming product as a funnel to bring subscribers into the Times fold. But in 2024, games represents a separate part of the Times ecosystem — one that provides an entry point for users who might otherwise never engage with the newspaper’s journalism or editorial content.

In 2022, for example, Nicole Cardoza canceled her New York Times subscription in protest of the newspaper’s coverage of transgender people, but she has paid for a games-specific subscription, which goes for $50/year or $6/month, ever since. Cardoza is now one of over a million subscribers who specifically pay to access NYT Games content.

“I know that money has to be supporting editorial, and I do sit with it, but I’m not going to beat myself up,” Cardoza said. “I would love to not be as attached [to NYT Games] — but who’s going to do that?”

The New York Times is not becoming a gaming company, in the sense that it does not view gamers as its primary audience, nor is it on the cusp of developing the next big-budget console title. But as it continues to diversify its editorial offerings for the digital era, the Times has certainly embraced puzzle gamers as one of its core captive audiences, and it is taking advantage of its advantageous positioning in the space in 2024.

“The New York Times is not becoming a gaming company any more than the acquisition of the Athletic would imply they are becoming a sports company,” said Gareth Sutcliffe, an analyst for the market research service Enders Analysis. “NYT is simply acknowledging that being a broad generalist spells death online, and they have prioritized and valued the means of addressing that.”

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