It's hard to win a Pulitzer Prize.

If years of wishful thinking each spring didn't deliver that message to me, three days among those who got to pick the best in journalism brought the truth home. It's hard. Hard to judge. Harder still to win.

That's the view from inside the airy rooms at Columbia University, where a mountain of entries greeted me and six other jurors assigned in March to pick three finalists in the Commentary division of the Pulitzers. The experience magnified the value of the prize, exposed the qualities of excellent column writing, and offered one sad surprise.

More on that last thing later.

There were nearly 200 entries in Commentary, each stuffed with as many as 10 columns. Four votes kept you on the table. Four votes put you on the floor. You did not want to be on the floor.

· The Pulitzer Prizes
 · Quotes from past winners

From Poynter Online:
Links to the prize-winning entries
 · 2003: A Prized Moment for the Globe, and the Pulitzers
 · 2003: Let's Pay Even More Attention to Pulitzers
 · 2000: The Serious Business of Judging the Pulitzers

Our team started by laying out some of the attributes we'd look for as we read. That list grew each day as we learned what made us say yes and what made us put things on the floor. We said yes if a columnist provided:

  • A strong voice

  • A distinct point of view

  • Clarity of thought

  • Fairness to subjects

  • An airing of opposing points of view

  • Columns that informed and enlightened

  • A clear arc to the column

It was also a plus if some columns told a good tale or were funny or took on issues different from what everybody else was saying or appealed not just to the intellectual but to the visceral as well. You went under the table pretty quickly with this group if you were:

  • Boring, dull or corny

  • Fond of cliches

  • A fan of quoting yourself

  • Glib, smug, or flippant

  • Given to writing feature stories

Jurors didn't like it much if the columns were too "inside," providing too little context and expecting that readers followed the news more closely than they do. They frowned upon the iconoclastic and passed on those who recited lots of fact but expressed no opinion.

My jury included Jeff Bruce, editor of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, Michael Goodwin, executive editor of the New York Daily News, Morgan McGinley, editorial page editor of The Day in New London, Conn., Marcia McQuern, retired editor and publisher of The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., Debra Adams Simmons, vice president and editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, and Jim Smith, executive editor of the Meriden (Conn.) Record-Journal.

From them, you got a good read whether you worked for a paper in the smallest market or the largest, whether you'd clipped some stories and sent them in yourself or you got one of those glossy portfolios that came with the backing of the executive editor.

I loved that about the Pulitzers. I loved the idea that you had a chance even if you didn't have a name. Those folks with names, though, were tough to beat. We sent to the board three outstanding columnists. Here is a bit of what jurors sent to the board about our three finalists:

  • Nicholas Kristof gave voice to thousands of people whose suffering was virtually unknown in the West. … He traveled the globe to go after issues that other journalists neglected. He illuminates the valor of those on the front lines of the battle against human suffering.

  • Leonard Pitts writes with clear, vibrant prose that often lands like a punch to the gut. His forceful columns reveal a fresh, unique voice. His writing resonates with ordinary people who can find their own lives reflected in his columns.

  • Cynthia Tucker is tough. She courageously takes on sacred cows. ... She is as relentless as a Georgia bulldog, presenting arguments that are direct and persuasive. She writes in the tradition of the great, crusading commentators of the South.

The talent ran deep.

The pool was rich, diverse, encouraging. Doing the judging — watching the judging — was a lesson in how much time and thought goes into choosing the best. So I can finally forgive the jury that didn't pick my newspaper 10 years ago when we thought we had a shot.

I learned something else during those three days in March, and here was my surprise: It may be hard to win a Pulitzer, but it's a piece of cake to crack the secrecy around who's in contention.

Within hours of the voting last month, a partial list of finalists in many categories (though not in Commentary) was posted on the Washingtonian website. The full list of finalists was on Editor & Publisher's website by week's end.

That breach is not such a monumental thing, really. In the end, it's only a contest, professional prestige notwithstanding. And what was the real risk of publishing the finalists' names ahead of the board's April 5 announcement? Raised hopes that get dashed? Hurt feelings? Journalists have thick skin. They can take it.

You might even look at the subverted secrecy as a tribute to investigative reporting. The thing is, though, that the people doing the judging gave their word — some signed their names — promising not to tell what they knew, lest the judging process be laid open to lobbying and other forms of influence peddling that could taint the prestige right off those prizes.

Still, the names leak out each year.

Maybe it's a small thing, given the scarier scandals of the profession. But integrity should stand for something, especially in these rocky days. It ought to at least be as hard to learn who's contending for a Pulitzer as it is to win one.

CLARIFICATION: As a result of a misunderstanding about coverage ground rules, an earlier version of this report included a paragraph (since removed) that listed additional names sent to the Pulitzer board by the Commentary jury.
CORRECTION: Nicholas Kristof's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this column.