Puzzles as a habit-building tool have been thrust back into the spotlight following the New York Times’ acquisition of viral game Wordle. The power of word games and crosswords to bring audiences back day after day is well-documented.
But for subscription publishers, puzzles can present a challenge. Regular visitors to a crossword or game are not necessarily going to be exposed to the journalism, let alone sign up for a subscription.
Publishers like the New York Times are addressing this by having a separate Games subscription. For 75p a week, or £25 a year, dedicated puzzlers can access levels, leaderboards and more. As this segment is now monetised, it matters less whether they engage with any of the NYT’s other work. However, this isn’t a solution all publishers are able to implement, especially those with just one or two puzzles.
The Atlantic has a different solution. In December, it launched The Good Word, a weekly newsletter from crossword-puzzles editor Caleb Madison. “I love the English language very much,” he wrote in his first issue. “I’ll be proselytizing my love weekly with this newsletter, taking one answer from the previous week of Atlantic crossword puzzles and unpacking what makes it so fascinating to me.”
Newsletters as a bridge
Newsletters have had a resurgence in popularity in recent years as a more reliable way of reaching audiences than fickle social media algorithms. There’s also the benefit of collecting data directly. When an otherwise-anonymous reader chooses to give a publisher their email address, the publisher can begin to build a deeper relationship with them.
“It’s a useful entry point into The Atlantic,” Executive Editor Adrienne LaFrance told Digital Content Next. “There may be people who play the puzzle and aren’t deeply familiar with The Atlantic and start reading. In fact, we’ve seen that the puzzle is a real portal to the rest of our journalism.”
This works because as well as the written essay from Madison, each issue features that week’s top stories and Atlantic events. Puzzlers who may have started with an interest in the crossword and how it’s built are now exposed on a weekly basis to The Atlantic’s full journalism. Their bet is that regular cruciverbalists with an interest in linguistics will also find commonality with the publisher’s more analytical, deep-dive approach to current events.
“The Atlantic is a literary magazine in so many respects,” LaFrance said. “So it fits for us to have a newsletter that’s focused on words and etymology. So it just felt like all round the right thing to do. And it’s also really exciting to give people other than us a chance to get to know Caleb.”
A more direct connection
The Good Word is notable in that it’s led very strongly by Madison. His tone of voice and style are at the forefront; something that LaFrance said was an intentional decision. “[Caleb] is really charismatic, brilliant, and a funny person,” she said. “We just love the idea of creating a closer and more direct connection between Caleb and people who are fans of the puzzle.”
Building audiences around writers is a subject of intense debate. It exposes publishers to the risks of staff leaving and taking those audiences with them, or for writers themselves becoming targets. But readers are drawn to people and personalities; it’s no accident that Substack and other self-publishing platforms have grown so rapidly over the past few years. The debate is nowhere near settled, as this week’s public spat between New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman and ex-Times technology reporter Taylor Lorenz over personal brands demonstrates.
The risks are ones The Atlantic is quite happy to take, for now. Talking to Press Gazette at the beginning of the year, CEO Nicholas Thompson said that the newsletter phenomenon would be driven by the personal touch.
“One of the effects of social media and digital publishing is to shift power and influence from organisations like the Atlantic to individuals,” he said. “And so we spent a lot of time thinking about how we respond to this. Do you try to create your own newsletter platform? Do you try to just stop all the writers who want to go write newsletters? Do you partner with one of the existing companies?”
“We eventually settled on the strategy of building our own newsletter distribution system that would, we hope, take the best of individual newsletters and the best of the benefits of continuing to work for the Atlantic.”
Playing the long game
It will be some time yet before The Atlantic can see to what extent The Good Word is smoothing the path to a paid subscription. The strategy certainly has all the ingredients for success, bringing together the daily habit, direct connection and personal touch that have previously all proved winners in building deeper relationships with readers.
As more publishers look to bridge the gaps between casual readers and paying subscribers, this will almost certainly not be the last puzzle newsletter we see launched.