© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Crossword Puzzle Scandal Involves Two-Word City Beginning With Letters K And C

Creative Commons-Flickr
A story in FiveThirtyEight said at least 60 crossword puzzles whose copyright is owned by Uclick copied elements from New York Times puzzles.

This story was updated at 12:12 p.m. to include the comment of Uclick's marketing director.

What’s a seven-letter word for something that’s shocking or upsetting?

The answer is scandal, and the one currently rocking the crossword puzzle world has ties back to Kansas City.

In case you haven’t heard by now, an investigation by FiveThirtyEight, the website founded by statistics guru Nate Silver, raised questions over whether the longtime editor of two major crossword puzzle series may have been plagiarizing puzzles and passing them off as originals.

The copyright for both series is owned by Kansas City-based Universal Uclick, formerly known as Universal Press Syndicate. And on Monday, Uclick announced that the editor, Timothy Parker, had agreed to temporarily step back from his editorial role at the puzzles for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords, whose clients include the New York Daily News, Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News.

In a statement Monday, Uclick said:

“Timothy Parker has edited thousands of puzzles for Universal over many years, and we have high regard for his work. So we are naturally very concerned by the recent story by FiveThirtyEight.com that puzzles he edited contained many similarities to puzzles edited by others.”

In the meantime, Uclick said, it was prepared to provide its customers crossword puzzles from a different source.

Susan Johnson, Uclick’s chief marketing officer, said in an email that she had nothing new to share beyond the statement. 

The allegations against Parker surfaced when FiveThirtyEight published a lengthy story on Friday based on an analysis of a database holding nearly 52,000 puzzles published by different outlets going back decades. The database was assembled by a software engineer, Saul Pwanson (he changed his name from Paul Swanson, a footnote in the article says), who told FiveThirtyEight he was an aspiring crossword constructor.

The database revealed that, since 1999, at least 60 crossword puzzles edited by Parker copied elements from New York Times puzzles, generally regarded as the gold standard of crossword puzzledom.

Beyond that, FiveThirtyEight reported, 1,090 Universal puzzles and 447 USA Today puzzles “were at least a 75 percent match to an earlier puzzle in the database.”

Parker also republished hundreds of puzzles that he had previously edited, according to FiveThirtyEight, using a pseudonym.

In a lengthy interview with FiveThirtyEight, Parker denied the plagiarism allegations, attributing the similarities to “mere coincidence,” even in cases where the puzzles were nearly identical.

“I would liken it to a sitcom when you hear a joke that might be similar to another sitcom,” he said. “Hey, if it’s a good joke, we did it a little bit differently. I don’t care if the theme has been run somewhere else, if it’s a good theme for my audience. I know my audience, and I know what we’re running. So I’m not really concerned if it’s run somewhere else.”

New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, said he was surprised by FiveThirtyEight’s story “because nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“When the same answers appear in the same order with the same clues, then you really suspect something is wrong,” he said. “And when it happens repeatedly, then you know it’s plagiarism.”

Shortz said he didn’t think the New York Times would take legal action against Parker. But a spokeswoman for The Times told the newspaper The Times was looking into the matter.

Guinness World Records named Parker the “World’s Most Syndicated Puzzle Compiler” in May 2000. A 2003 article in People magazine said his crossword ventures had made him a multimillionaire.

Universal Uclick is the product of a 2009 merger between Universal Press Syndicate, which was founded in Kansas City in 1970 by Jim Andrews and John McMeel, and Uclick, a digital entertainment company. The company boasts more than 2,000 newspaper and magazine clients.   

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team and a crossword puzzle aficionado, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.