Jan 29, 2024 - Business

Games are helping the New York Times thrive amid media chaos

Illustration of a paperboy with newspapers over his shoulder and in one hand and a large game piece raised in his other hand

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The New York Times' puzzle and games were played more than 8 billion times last year, the company tells Axios exclusively, led by breakout hit Wordle, with 4.8 billion plays — and a Games app redesign is on the way.

Why it matters: The stats underscore gaming's increasing importance to the paper, which offers a $6/month games-only subscription, as well as costlier packages of games bundled with news and more.

The big picture: Offerings beyond news — such as cooking and product recommendations — are increasingly central to the Times' ability to grow amid a bloodbath in the broader journalism industry.

  • The company's subscription revenue increased nearly 10% to $418.6 million in the third quarter of 2023 — with digital product earnings rising nearly 16%, to $282.2 million, driven in part by bundles.

By the numbers: The NYT Games app was downloaded 10 million times last year, the company tells Axios, while players made 2.3 billion successful Connections — a relatively new game about finding associations among words.

What they're saying: "Our vision is to be the premier subscription destination for digital puzzles," Jonathan Knight, NYT's head of games, tells Axios.

  • "What we do uniquely, I think, is have a human-made, human-curated, high degree of editorial rigor and quality standards, and fact-checking and editors upon editors — and we're at a scale where we can really mount that kind of human effort to get behind our puzzles."

Between the lines: What differentiates the Times' games from myriad other mobile games, Knight says, is that they don't try to keep you playing for as long as possible to boost ad revenue.

  • "We're not trying to get you to spend 24/7 in our app; we're not trying to get you addicted to solving level after level after level," he says.
  • "Maybe you do two or three of them, maybe just one — some people play first thing in the morning, or it's their before bed habit, or lunch break, or whatever it might be."
  • "We want to fit into your life, and I think that's really resonating with people."

Of note: The Times has rolled out some ads on its games, including on Wordle, which remains free to play.

Reality check: Not everything Knight's team has launched has been a hit. Numbers puzzle Digits was quietly shelved after lackluster pickup, for instance.

  • "It just didn't quite meet the mark, which was sad — I was a big Digits fan," Knight says. "I think the math-iness probably limited its reach."
  • "But we're at a place now where we have to make those tough calls. We were lucky to have Connections coming right after, and we could really see the difference [in engagement]."

What's next: The Times' dedicated Games app is getting a redesign, Knight says, so that it will be "truly like a games app, as opposed to a crossword app with a few other games jammed in, which is what it was historically."

  • Puzzle fans should also be on the lookout for "more beta testing of new ideas," he adds.

The bottom line: In a media environment dominated by layoffs, buyouts and utter implosions, offerings other than hardcore news increasingly appear like a valuable part of a successful mix.

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