Journalism in Jeopardy

Last night’s Jeopardy has some journalists buzzing today: along with two of the more usual suspects we see on the show—quirky PhD students, cardigan-clad schoolteachers, researchers, lawyers—Alex Trebek announced that contestant Kara Spak was a “newspaper reporter.” Finally, the world would get a chance to see how smart we journos really are.

And the surprised-looking Spak surprised me by winning the night.

Spak led going into the all-important “Final Jeopardy,” and was the only contestant to get the Poetry answer/question precisely correct: “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” She will be on the show again tonight, representing all of us for whom a night’s Jeopardy’s winnings might be a year’s wages.

Today, we found out Spak’s a Chicago Sun-Times staff reporter, who yesterday published a piece about her twelve-year attempt to get on the show and her experiences as a contestant. It’s not quite Nellie Bly, but it’s a fun read, and revealing for any who regularly scream questions at their screen like, “What is chloroform?” and, “Who is Heidi Montag?”

Ever wondered whether contestants get along? Here you go:

Maybe my fellow contestants were serious, or tired so early in the morning. We rode the shuttle to Sony Pictures Studio in silence, then were escorted to the “Jeopardy!” lot.

Once everyone loosened up, I learned the group included a Seattle man who once helped birth seven calves in a snowstorm and a D.C.-area cop who used his “Jeopardy!” pen to write a ticket.

…The other contestants were nice, but we really wanted each other to crash and burn. We sized each other up during two practice games. Four hours after arriving, it was time to play — for two other contestants who were selected at random to take on returning champion Craig.

And how are contestants treated?

“Jeopardy!” can be a big-money show, but it’s pretty thrifty unless you win. You pay your way out there. You pay for your hotel, but if you stay at the official contestant hotel, you get a discounted rate, free breakfast and a ride to the studio.

The victorious Spak wrote a follow-up today, echoing a thought many of us wish we too could have.

I was surprised to see myself in the lead going into Final Jeopardy, and more confident when I saw the category was “Poetry.” I’ve never regretted majoring in English in college, and now was my chance to show the world that, truly, a liberal arts degree was far from worthless.

In my case, in 30 minutes, my English major helped me win $24,001.

(Maybe she should donate a little of that to her employer.)

Spak’s win—and her brush with journalistic fame by writing about it—could result in more journalists heading into the game show world to get the scoop and scoop the pool. Personally, I’d like to see a version of The Weakest Link among the White House press corps; or a month-long Survivor between the Journal and Times tribes. Survivor: Greater New York.

Maybe even a special Deal or No Deal with Comcast and NBC brass holding the suitcases.

Any other suggestions?

Note: Perhaps I would not be the best game show contestant. The spelling of Nellie Bly has been corrected; it originally read “Nelly Bligh.” Thanks to Jim Romenesko for pointing it out.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.