As the New York Times continues its broad transformation into a digital-first media company, one if its most venerable and idiosyncratic traditions is feeling the pains of sudden change.
On May 29, the Times released version 2.0 of its Crossword app — the first version completely produced by the Times without its co-publisher, the games company Magmic. The release was slammed in the App Store: more than 900 reviews, averaging a 1.3-star rating. Users described the app as "a major step backwards," "terrible," and a "bungled opportunity."
Fans of the Times Crossword are some of the most loyal — and persnickety — customers of the Gray Lady. For one thing, there are a lot of them, and they pay: Subscription to the Times' crossword app costs $40 a year, or $6.95 on a monthly basis. A source familiar with the Times said that there are 200,000 crossword subscribers. Compare that to the number of Times digital subscribers, last described by the Times in April, as 799,000.
User complaints mainly boiled down to two gripes — deletion of their past scores and the elimination of access to the Times' 18 years of crossword archives. The Times has already said in the App Store that the full archive will be brought back in the app's next update, but getting subscribers their history back is unlikely.
Linda Zebian, a spokesperson for The New York Times, told BuzzFeed:
For the most recent update of The New York Times Crossword we introduced a redesigned app as well as a new Play Anywhere feature that syncs a user's progress across desktop, iPhone or iPad.
We heard from some users that they miss some of the features that were available in the previous versions of the app, especially regarding the limited access to the crossword archives, and we are are working to fix these issues. In the coming days we will release another update that will include full access to the archives as far back as 1996, among other improvements. We are also planning to introduce additional mobile features in the coming months.
"Crossword people are notoriously conservative about such things, as theirs is a pastime both routine and ritualized," said Rex Parker, a popular crossword blogger who solves the Times puzzle every day. "You do not fuck with people's rituals without a certain amount of blowback."
According to Magmic CEO John Criswick, the contract between the Times and Magmic had been on a yearly renewal basis since the companies started working together in 2008, and, furthermore, the Times has always intended to take over the app itself.
"They all want to do it themselves," he said. "But you can guess what sometimes happens as a result of that."
He explained that the transfer of ownership between Magmic and the Times was the first time that Apple has ever transitioned user-ids of a subscription app, a multi-week process he described as "technically challenging."
Two sources familiar with the development at the Times described a concerted effort by the company in recent years to hire enough developers to eliminate the need to deal with third-party vendors. One of the sources added that the Times did not have good relationships with these third parties and that the Times has looked to produce its app in-house to better supervise how their brand is put out to consumers.
Criswick told BuzzFeed that his company did have a good relationship with the Times but he had heard rumors of the Times' acrimonious relationships with its app development partners.
"They're strict with the reputation of their brand and some developers find that harsh," he said.
The Times' brand is providing NYT-worthy content to its customers. Some fans of the crossword feel that is not currently happening — or won't happen in the future.
"Even if positive changes are made, I doubt that I will ever return to a company that so casually throws aside its customers. Goodbye New York Times," wrote one reviewer.
This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the number of New York Times digital subscribers.