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The Times they are a-changing (for the worse)
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If it ain’t broke...

There was once a troubled time of which even the Great Sages dare not speak. These were the Dark Days, when pestilence and fear stalked the land. Mankind lived under the fell and baleful dominion of the Green Parrot, which struck terror into the hearts of the mightiest warriors. This was the Age of Incompetence of the Times Crossword Club.

Regular Times solvers will remember that in the late noughties, they were as likely as not to be confronted with a 404 error page when they tried to log in to the Crossword Club to get the daily puzzle. To make things worse, some joker at the Times decided that including a picture of a green parrot on a box would so amuse frustrated Club members that they wouldn’t mind that the service they were paying for was barely fit for purpose. (Thank goodness for small mercies, though: at least we didn’t get the patronising “Oops!” which some sites put on their error pages.)

Writing to the Times helpdesk was a waste of time. You’d get a standard response telling you to clear your cache, delete your bookmarks and all the other useless “advice” given out by incompetent web designers when their sites don’t work properly.

Fortunately a couple of people on a crossword forum came up with a hack which enabled us to get round the login page and reach the puzzles for which we had paid, until the Times got their act together and the site started working properly. And in fairness, someone at the Times finally did do what is known in specialist circles as kicking arse. They gave the technical staff an ice cream and sent them back to kindergarten, and people who knew what they were doing got the Times site working perfectly – which it has continued to do for the last seven years. One particularly good feature was that all the blocked grid puzzles appeared in a very agreeable print version, with offered a choice of font size and black or grey grids (the latter to save ink). Alas, that is no more.

I started by mentioning the Dark Days because what we have now is even worse than that. Back then, the Times site had more bugs than an entomologist’s laboratory, but at least we got presentable print versions when the site did work. The revamped site, which appeared at the beginning of August 2017, has quite a few bugs too, but those aren’t the problem as it is reasonable to assume that these will be fixed (some have been already). No, the problem is that the print versions are absolutely dreadful and it looks as if they are here to stay.

Instead of a web page we get a PDF. Nothing wrong with that per se, BUT the only option is that the entire crossword – grid and clues – appears in a shade of grey which is 70% black. What this means is that printing the puzzle wastes ink (not least because the Times logo appears at the top in full black), yet still the clues are rather faint. If you try to save ink by using your printer’s economy option, the result is that the clues are so faint they are ridiculously hard to read. The designers have had a real attack of the stupids with the cryptic Jumbo puzzle – there is a huge name and address box under the grid, so that the clues start at the top of the second page. In the past we got about half the clues on the first page.

Others have complained about the smaller grid for the daily puzzles, and also that the (new, sans serif) font size is too small. I won’t disagree, but these things bother me far less than the waste of ink involved in printing these pages. The Guardian provides grey grids with easily read clues. So does the Independent. Both are free. The FT offers PDFs with black squares, but if you use the ink saving feature on your printer, the result is still legible – and the FT is also free. On the other hand, the Times now requires us to subscribe to the entire paper even if all we want is the crosswords, and we get the worst print option of the lot. Do the Times newspaper owners have major shares in HP, Canon and Epson?

I do realise that I am laying myself open to a charge of hypocrisy here, as the puzzles on this site also appear in black only. In my defence I will say that these puzzles are free, and if you use the ink-saving facility on your printer the clues are still quite legible. Also, I add new puzzles about once a month these days, whereas the Times requires using a lot of ink every day.

We are told that the Times site has been “upgraded” to improve the solving experience on mobile devices. Fair enough. Although I have no interest in owning a smartphone, and to me a tablet is something I take for my blood pressure when the Times site is being a pain in the fundament, I can understand that this is necessary in the age of iToys and the like. I have only done a handful of crosswords online – when I’ve run out of printer ink – and the experience didn’t appeal to me at all, but I accept that many others do like solving this way, so it makes sense to give them the opportunity to do so.

That said, there are plenty of solvers who prefer to do the puzzles on paper, as evidenced by the number of complaints on the Times site and other crossword forums. Those solvers are being fobbed off with a tenth-rate service, which is all the more galling because up to now we had an excellent range of print options. If this is to continue, the Times should perhaps introduce a two-tier system, where we can opt out of online solving and get a substantial discount for print-only membership.

Personally I think the new site looks shoddy and amateurish, and as I have said there are bugs aplenty, but I am prepared to put up with all that if only I can get a print version of the puzzles that is easy to read and doesn’t cost me a fortune in printer ink. It is clear that the Times is aware of the solvers’ dissatisfaction, so why can’t we have full black clues and grey squares in the grid, both of a decent size?

How hard can it be?