They don't enjoy the six-figure salaries of Fleet Street's finest. And few even have the satisfaction of seeing their names in print. Yet even in today's interactive, digital media world, it is the crossword setter rather than the star columnist who often dictates a reader's newspaper choice.
For proof look no further than The Times' decision to resurrect its National Crossword Competition, the finals for which recently took place at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The event, which last ran six years ago, didn't just attract unprecedented interest, according to Times crossword editor Richard Browne, it generated a warm glow for the paper even among readers unable to attend.
"We estimate around 10 per cent of the 750,000 people who regularly see The Times play our crosswords, and around one per cent - 7,000 people - typically enter the competitions we run in the paper. That's a lot of people, and it's the same on other national newspapers," he says. "The crossword has a very special place in British culture. It's an important part of many people's daily routine. And anecdotal evidence even suggests many people will take a paper for its crossword even it they don't like that paper's political stance."
Stephen Pritchard, readers editor for The Observer, agrees. "It's quite staggering the number of calls we receive if something in the crossword is wrong," he says. "When The Observer changed to the Berliner format last year we mistakenly left out one of our three regular crosswords, Everyman, in the first day's edition. The special telephone line we set up to gauge readers views of the redesign was inundated by callers ringing in from around the world. The biggest topic was the missing crossword."
Mark Gallagher, press director at media strategists Manning Gottlieb OMD, goes even further. "Crosswords mirror what newspapers are all about - they're thought-provoking," he says.
"News channels report news. Newspapers, however, offer more comment and so are a more engaging medium - puzzles therefore fit naturally into that. And the clear benefit to publishers and advertisers is that they increase the time a reader spends with a paper and generate a considerable degree of loyalty - more so than many columnists, in my view."
Small wonder, then, that crosswords are part of the basic DNA of almost every British national newspaper, most regional and local papers, and numerous magazines. Many newspapers package two or three crosswords of varying complexity alongside other puzzles. Some even purposely mix light-hearted features, word games and crosswords in dedicated down-time sections like the Daily Mail's Coffee Time.
It was not always so. The first crossword appeared less than 100 years ago and for many years, although popular, there were few to choose from, says The Observer's cryptic crossword setter Jonathan Crowther, whose new book, A to Z of Crosswords, lifts the lid on the secretive world of the crossword setter.
"The use of pseudonyms is long-established, and one reason for this is because for so long the crossword was regarded as a minor or trivial part of a newspaper," he explains. "There was an assumption that the crossword was the adjunct - always read last, but I think for many people it has always been the other way round."
As the newspaper market grew more competitive, however, the crossword was forced to evolve. "The Times crossword 40 years ago was full of obscure literary and scriptural allusions that only people with the right education - Oxbridge types sitting in Whitehall waiting for the tea trolley to come - could hope to solve," says Browne. "Now, however, you can't rely on a single set of cultural references or knowledge, and there is a far greater emphasis on manipulation of words."
Today, Browne believes, "anyone with a brain can do a crossword". And more people than ever before are setting crosswords for a living, some of whom have achieved a quite staggering output.
Roger Squires, who has set crosswords for virtually every national newspaper under pseudonyms including Rufus, Icarus, Hodge and Bower, has had 64,000 crossword puzzles published in more than 470 publications. His millionth clue appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 1989.
The appeal of the crossword remains the same as it has always been, Crowther adds: "They are fun, and at various levels a significant mental challenge. The English language is peculiarly susceptible to linguistic fracture and involvement, and cryptic crossword setters - and solvers - enjoy this." Harder to pin down, however, is just who plays.
"One dark cloud on the horizon is that judging from the people who enter my competitions, not many young people are doing crosswords now," Crowther reluctantly admits. "The cynic might say that's down to limited attention span, but I don't buy that. Young people today are as intelligent as they have always been. But the fact remains crosswords don't seem to loom as large in their lives as they did in previous generations."
Perhaps. But don't write off the crossword yet, says Nick O'Brien, business development director at Puzzler Media, the DC Thomson-owned publishing company which holds a 53 per cent share of the UK's £48m puzzles magazine market with more than 113 dedicated titles and monthly newsstand sales of more than two million copies.
"When sudoku took off in the UK 18 months ago it hit a real nerve. But it also generated a wave of interest in puzzling across the board. We found the sudoku titles we publish were being bought by a readership new to puzzling, and there was no negative impact on our other titles' sales," he says.
Puzzler Media research shows 60 per cent of the British population regularly does puzzles, and that proportion is constant across different age groups - including teens and twentysomethings.
"Our magazines do tend to have a slightly older age profile, but we've also developed online subscription services and a mobile puzzles portal with 02 - both of which include digitally downloadable crosswords - and many younger people are regularly using them," he adds. "New media and new games - like sudoku - are having a positive rather than negative impact on more traditional puzzles. It's way too soon to write the obituary of the crossword yet."Reuse content