Sudoku wars: waiting to see if the numbers add up

Forget the election, the Royal wedding and Beckham. A puzzle has national newspapers - and readers - in its grasp
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A general election campaign; the death of Pope John II; the second marriage of the future king; more Beckham shenanigans; DVD wars. All last month. But as the editors pick through the circulation data with their sales and marketing people, there is one word they keep hearing. It relates to none of these major news stories. It is Japanese, although it appears in no Japanese dictionary. The word is Sudoku (Su Doku if you are a Times reader) and suddenly everyone's talking about it.

A general election campaign; the death of Pope John II; the second marriage of the future king; more Beckham shenanigans; DVD wars. All last month. But as the editors pick through the circulation data with their sales and marketing people, there is one word they keep hearing. It relates to none of these major news stories. It is Japanese, although it appears in no Japanese dictionary. The word is Sudoku (Su Doku if you are a Times reader) and suddenly everyone's talking about it.

It is a puzzle that involves inserting numbers in a 9x9 grid and making sure that every row and every column and every 3x3 box within the bigger grid contains all the digits from one to nine. It is apparently obsessing the nation, is being talked about everywhere, and featuring on TV programmes from Newsnight to Richard & Judy. And it is preoccupying the newspapers, from red-top tabloid to the top of the market.

Crosswords are all very well, but there is an excitement and passion about all of this which seemed absent from the general election and royal wedding coverage. It is as though the newspapers have at last found something to engage their readers which is not a offer such as CDs and DVDs. This time it is something that is actually printed in the paper, albeit not news, or sport or features. And vitally, if you are sitting on public transport or whiling away time in Starbucks, it involves you doing something, rather than passively looking at the page.

Newspapers have always been shameless grabbers of successful ideas. The desperate pursuit of sale means that anything that seems to work for one publisher - add-on, supplement, smaller size - is hijacked by another. The Daily Mail, Times and Telegraph all claim to have introduced the game to British newspapers last November, although it is over the past week that mass lift-off has occurred. Why? Because The Sun has entered the fray, and we have the unprecedented situation of that paper competing on the same ground as The Guardian and The Independent. Even the Salvation Army's paper, The War Cry, has its Sudoku puzzle, with its own take: "It is not the only puzzle in town. Many people are trying to figure out what life - and death - is all about. The good news is that we needn't be stuck."

Everyone has their claims and counter-claims and their stunts. On Friday The Guardian put a Sudoku puzzle on every page of its second section. The Independent had a quick Sudoku on its back page, and three more of varying difficulty on page 50. This paper has brought you the word-based Godoku. And there has emerged a sub-culture of compilers that generates the same awe as those who dream up crosswords. Already the names of Michael Mepham (Telegraph), Wayne Gould (Times) and Peter Sterling (Mail) are getting around.

It will be next month before we see whether there has been a Sudoku lift across all those papers offering the puzzle. Of those that have provided the game since last year, The Times is profiting most, with circulation up 4.7 per cent year on year. Or is that the compact effect? Or even the general election? The Independent was up 0.7 per cent year on year, but the two remaining broadsheets suffered again: Guardian down 3.7 per cent; Telegraph down 1.2 per cent.

The downward trend of the red-tops continues: the Mirror down nearly 9 per cent year on year; The Sun a less dramatic but still substantial 2.6 per cent down; News of the World, 5 per cent; People, 9 per cent. It will take more than Sudoku to reverse these declines.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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