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Crossword Constructor Exploitation

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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I have long wondered how well compensated NYT crossword constructors are. Each day, the paper dutifully prints the name of the puzzle’s constructor. With a magnifying glass you may be able to learn who it is. But Will Shortz always gets top billing, and you’ll have no trouble reading his name. My sense that constructors don’t get their due is confirmed by Ben Tausig in a recent piece (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan).

The financial stakes of the crossword are higher than a casual solver might realize. The New York Times, which runs the most prestigious American crossword series, pays $200 for a daily or $1,000 for a Sunday, which is certainly more generous than its competitors. However, The Times also makes piles of money from its puzzles. Standalone, online subscriptions to the crossword cost $40 a year ($20 for those who already subscribe to the dead-tree edition of the paper). In this 2010 interview, Will Shortz, the paper’s famed puzzle master, estimated the number of online-only subscribers at around 50,000, which translates to $2 million annually.

Meanwhile, The Times buys all rights to the puzzles, allowing them to republish work in an endless series of compendiums like The New York Times Light and Easy Crossword Puzzles. In that same interview, Shortz called these “about the best-selling crossword books in the country.” All royalties go to the New York Times Company, the constructor having signed away—as is the industry standard—all of his or her rights. Visitors to NYTimes.com will also be familiar with the crossword merchandise—mugs, shirts, calendars, pencils, and the like—pitched aggressively by the paper, and perhaps also with the 900 number answer line, which still makes some money from a presumably less Google-minded segment of solvers. Finally, the crossword has a significant impact on overall circulation. Lots of people buy the paper, or even subscribe, in whole or part because of the puzzle.

Tausig makes clear that his beef isn’t with Shortz, who has been a steady advocate for higher constructor pay. It’s with the Sulzbergers.

The crossword business needs its Curt Flood and its Marvin Miller. Yes, not a perfect analogy. But in the knowledge economy, the content creators deserve more. Royalties at the least.

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Categories: Business, Crosswords
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