by Len Lear
Joel Fagliano grew up in Mt. Airy and loved playing Mt. Airy baseball, attending ESF summer camp at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill and biking over to Allens Lane playground to play tennis. He attended Houston Elementary School for two years, than Project Learn in Mt. Airy for two years and then the elite Masterman School from 5th through 12th grade.
Now just 23 years old, the 2014 graduate of Pomona College (California) with a degree in Linguistics and Cognitive Science admits he is very lucky to have his “dream job.” In fact, it is a job very few people have anywhere, and he has it with the New York Times. No, he is not uncovering governmental corruption or reporting from some war-torn country or interviewing celebrities. Well, here is how he explains it:
“When I first started working there in the summer of 2014, the New York Times didn’t have their own app for solving the crossword puzzle and was in the process of creating one. The Times crossword actually has its own separate subscription ($40 a year), so after the complimentary seven free puzzles, the app user would hit a paywall.
“In an effort to not drive these people away, the Times wanted some additional content on the app for people to come back to and play every day. That was when I pitched a daily 5×5-inch mini-crossword idea, and we decided to give that a try. The idea was that this smaller, free crossword could get people hooked on solving, and maybe they’d eventually want to pay 40 bucks to play the full-sized one every day. It’s sort of taken on a life of its own since then.”
Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor at the New York Times since 1993, was so delighted with the reader response that he allowed Joel to keep creating a mini-crossword in the Times every day since August, 2014. So far, more than 650 have appeared.
“Honestly,” said Joel, “it’s been way more well-received than I would have predicted. On average, there are now something like a half-million daily players of the puzzle. I think it’s been popular for a couple of reasons. The full-sized Times crossword is notoriously difficult, so to have a puzzle offered by the Times that’s solvable each day is a big plus for people.
“I make the clues very easy so that crossword beginners will get the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from finishing a puzzle. But part of it also is trying to remove the obscurities and arcane knowledge that are normally associated with crossword puzzles and instead test things that a modern, smart news reader will actually know. So I think the minis have a bit more up-to-date vibe that people appreciate.
“And then finally, I think the biggest reason for its success is that it doesn’t take very long to do. A normal Times crossword might take a beginner an hour to complete, whereas these only take a couple of minutes. Given that people’s attention spans on their phones are pretty short, having a puzzle that gets you a quick sense of satisfaction and then allows you to move on with your day seems to be the right model for the Smartphone era.”
Joel’s title at the Times is Digital Puzzles Editor. His puzzles now appear in the main news app, a relatively new development. He does not get many phone calls from readers, but he does get lots of emails about supposed errors. “As you’d imagine,” he said, “people who do puzzles are very discerning and quite vocal when they feel I’ve gotten something wrong!
“It can be stressful to have something you make get put under the public microscope every day, but on the other hand, it’s also pretty cool that people care enough to let me know. And I’ve certainly learned along the way lots about the holes in my knowledge and the things I need to double and triple-check.”
As they say in Texas, Joel’s crossword experience since 2014 was not his first rodeo. Way back in 2007, as a young teenager, Joel was creating standard length crossword puzzles and sending them to the New York Times for their consideration. They were rejected again and again until September, 2009, when editor Will Shortz finally accepted one. One month later, it ran.
Buoyed by this experience, Joel continued creating new puzzles and submitting them to major publications. Before finishing high school, he had three more puzzles accepted by the New York Times and two by the Los Angeles Times syndicate.
Joel’s mom, Mara Natkins, 57, is a grant writer who currently works for SHARE food program, a non-profit that helps distribute food to homeless shelters. His dad, Jerry Fagliano, 58, is a chairman at the Drexel University School of Public Health. A brother, Levi Natkins, 25, also went to Masterman, and another brother, Jacob Fagliano, 21, went to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
In his spare time, Joel likes to “watch Philly sports from afar and generally be bummed out by our terribleness. I also like to play basketball at the park, run along the East River and try to explore as many parts of New York City as I can.”
For more information, visit www.nytimes.com/crosswords/game/mini