New York Times Crossword Constructors Are Fighting Against its Systemic Bias

600 people have signed a letter to the executive director of puzzles at the New York Times, asking the department to stop specifically catering to older white men.
April 22, 2020, 2:59pm
Someone solving a crossword.
Photo via Marc Kjerland on Flickr

Hundreds of crossword constructors and enthusiasts co-signed a letter to the man in charge of the New York Times puzzles, voicing concerns about implicit bias in a system that they believe favors old, straight, white men and erases the voices of minority crossword constructors and solvers.

People who have paid close attention to the New York Times crossword, which is solved by millions upon millions of people every day, know that the cluing of the puzzles often seem targeted at imagined solvers who are older white males. This is evident in the clues the puzzles use, the fact that many of the constructors and editors are white men, and the fact that the crossword has had a few sexist and racist cluing controversies in recent years. In this open letter, constructors say that answers such as "MARIE KONDO" and "FLAVAFLAV" are too “niche” to understand. Meanwhile "HOOD," clued by "Place with homies," has made the puzzle.

Outlets running crosswords for hundreds of thousands of subscribers a week, in digital and print form, are overwhelmingly edited by white, cis-gendered men, catering to a white, cis-gendered male audience. A group of current and former crossword constructors aims to change that—and they've amassed nearly 600 supporters in the process.

Those enthusiasts, professional constructors, and test-solvers voiced concerns about implicit bias at the New York Times in a letter openly published last week and addressed to Eric von Coelln, the executive director of puzzles at the Times.

Following an article published in the Atlantic last month by Times crossword constructor Natan Last, as well as the recent resignation of constructor Claire Muscat over concerns about being tokenized in her role as a test solver, the letter asks readers to sign in support against "the systematic erasure of minority voices in puzzles written by women, people of color, and queer constructors."

"This occurs both at the selection stage—when puzzles are disqualified because they include references that are considered unfamiliar to an imagined straight, white, male, and middle-aged audience—and at the editing stage, when clues are changed to cater to this imagined community of solvers," the letter says.

The majority of co-signers on the letter are subscribers to the newspaper who solve the puzzle. Many are also crossword constructors themselves, who have made puzzles for the Times and for other outlets.

"It's so easy to write off crossword puzzles as a frivolous activity," Aimee Lucido, a constructor for the New Yorker crossword who co-signed the letter, told Motherboard. "It’s a game, after all… Many people solve the crossword in the morning, and then forget about it by the afternoon."

According to Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications at the Times, von Coelln spoke with Muscat, Last, and Times constructor Anna Shechtman last week about the letter.

"We are also making the puzzle submission process more collaborative by sharing proofs with constructors and by digitizing the process, which will be complete by the end of May," Rhoades Ha said.

A written response to the constructors from von Coelln, which Rhoades Ha sent to Motherboard, outlined the ways he and the rest of the puzzles department plan to address the concerns in the letter—including a commitment to diversifying and expanding the editorial team, and more inclusive processes for collaboration within that team.

"By the end of 2020, we will rely on a combination of collaborative digital tools and more collaborative interaction models within the team to make the editorial process more creative and transparent for everyone on the editorial team, including test-solvers and fact-checkers," von Coelln wrote. "We're also focused on improving our communications with constructors. We recently cut the submission response time for constructors in half, and plan to further digitize the process this quarter. We share edited proofs with constructors as part of our puzzle pack editing system and we will address how we begin to do that with our daily puzzles by the Fall if not sooner."

Muscat told Motherboard that she doesn't feel comfortable judging the Times' response as adequate at this point.

"Making a change to a conservative institution is a long and difficult process, and a response is just the start," she said. "We are, however, grateful for the Times’ openness to continuing this dialogue and are eager to continue advocating for a fairer process and safer workplace for those who have been and continue to be marginalized."

"The truth is, it’s not about whether or not I get to solve a crossword with FLAVAFLAV in it," Luciado said. "It’s about what it says to the world when voice of The New York Times crossword puzzle is consistently and aggressively white, male, cis, straight, and roughly 55 years old. It’s what we’re telling our solvers when we insist that ORR (hockey player) is common knowledge but OPI (nail polish brand) isn’t. That KITTENHEEL isn’t well-known enough to belong in a crossword. That IED is more cross-worthy than IUD."