The most searched-for terms on The New York Times website last year weren't "Trump" or "Biden" or even "coronavirus."
They were "crosswords" and "Spelling Bee," the name of the Times' online word game -- part of the newspaper's attempt to grab a bigger piece of the $100 billion market for mobile games.
The Times is under pressure lately to diversify away from news. With Donald Trump's chaotic presidency over -- and the riveting events of 2020 in the rearview mirror -- the newspaper has warned that subscriber gains won't continue at the rate they did last year. So the company is looking to games to help maintain its momentum.
It currently plans to invest more money in games and puzzles than ever before. In a sign of its ambitions, the company recently hired Jonathan Knight, who helped popularize online games like Words With Friends and FarmVille while working for Zynga Inc. He brings the kind of digital know-how that the Times may have lacked with traditional crossword gurus like Will Shortz.
Knight's job is to help the Times come up with new brain teasers -- going beyond current offerings like Spelling Bee, which tests how many words can be made from seven letters, and a bite-size crossword puzzle called the Mini. His team plans to hire several more people in engineering, design, production and other creative roles.
"It would be easy to just add tons and tons of different puzzles to our site -- puzzles you can get in other places -- but we really want to be creating original experiences," he said.
The Times isn't about to become a gaming powerhouse, and it's hard to value that business apart from its publishing operations, said Evercore ISI analyst John Belton. But investors have bet that the nearly 170-year-old institution has a bright digital future, thanks both to online news subscribers and people seeking recipes and other diversions. The shares jumped 61% in 2020, marking the fourth-straight year of gains. The stock performance this year -- down 3% so far -- may hinge on how well it can bounce back from a slower news cycle.
Knight describes games as "a healthy diversion from the news." That proved true during the pandemic, when millions of people were stuck at home and looking for new ways to spend their time. More than 28 million people played at least one of the Times' games last year, up 16% from the year before.
The company recently started introducing new games at the end of its daily newsletter, The Morning. They include one-sentence riddles, puzzles that challenge users to figure out what word or phrase an image is meant to convey, and equations that contain the initials of words needed to complete it, like "52 = C in a D" would lead to "52 cards in a deck."