Crosswords past, present and future

New York Sun

The Dec. 21, 1913, issue of the New York Sun features the earliest known crossword puzzle called “Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle.” (Newseum collection)

Peter Gordon has a way with words. The founder of Fireball Crosswords and head of puzzle and game books for Puzzlewright Press visited Washington, D.C., last week to attend the Scripps National Spelling Bee and to compete in The Indie 500, a crossword-solving tournament. (He finished 19th out of 100 competitors.)

While in town, Gordon also visited the Newseum to talk about puzzles, their role in newspapers, and how puzzles are adapting to a changing media landscape. He knows his stuff: Gordon has authored nearly 100 New York Times crossword puzzles and is the former crossword editor of The New York Sun.

“I think what makes newspapers succeed is the part that’s not news, the fun stuff: recipes, puzzles, the comics,” Gordon said. But many papers are cutting these features in an attempt to cut costs. “The New York Times just dropped their bridge column,” Gordon notes. “I think it’s a mistake. It’s not that expensive, especially compared to sending a reporter to cover a story in, say, East Timor.”

The challenge for professional crossword authors, Gordon says, is that newspapers want to retain the rights to a puzzle after it’s published in the paper – but so do the authors. And when papers aren’t willing to pay a premium for a great puzzle, authors find ways to publish on their own.

Enter Fireball Crosswords, Gordon’s one-day-a-week labor of love for which he writes and distributes crossword puzzles via email on a subscription basis. A recently funded Kickstarter campaign secured his fans another year of his bi-weekly “All the News That Fits Symmetrically” puzzle, which incorporates news from the past two weeks into puzzle clues.

Even as they are dropped from newspapers, crosswords are widely available online and through phone and tablet apps. But Gordon believes the experience of putting pencil (or pen) to paper to solve a puzzle will never die. “The last book in the last bookstore in America will be a crossword puzzle book,” he said with a smile.

The Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery features the story of the earliest known crossword puzzle, which appeared in the Dec. 21, 1913, issue of the New York Sun. Interestingly, the puzzle is called “Fun’s Word-Cross Puzzle.” Gordon said the lore is that after a few weeks of printing the “word-cross” puzzle, a typesetter accidentally switched the words around and the new phrase stuck.

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