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Alfred Balk papers

Identifier: Midwest-MS-Balk

Scope and Content of the Collection

Materials related to Alfred Balk's journalism career including correspondence, working files for freelance articles, books, speeches, and other writings, files relating to his editorial positions, volunteer, and foundation work, also personal items and photographs.

Correspondence spans Alfred Balk's entire career and includes letters from Isaac Asimov, Jacques Barzun, Norman Cousins, Fred Friendly, Alex Haley, Paul Simon, and Alvin Toffler. Working files document Alfred Balk's freelance writing for Harper's, Reader's Digest, and The Saturday Evening Post, among other publications, and include materials related to "Confessions of a Blockbuster" and the resulting court case, as well as notes from interviews with Saul Alinsky, Richard J. Daley, and Malcolm X. Editorial files reflect his work at Saturday Review, Columbia Journalism Review, World Press Review, and IEEE Spectrum.

Personal items include biographical articles, clippings and souvenirs from Alfred Balk's US Army service in Japan, and correspondence and clippings regarding friends and contacts from his youth in Iowa. Photographs feature Alfred Balk, his family and associates, as well as events and organizations he participated in.

Alfred Balk kept meticulous, organized files. Original order and file names were retained whenever possible, and a copy of his original typed inventory is available upon request.


  • Creation: 1941-2010
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1953-1993



Materials are in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The Alfred Balk papers are open for research in the Special Collections Reading Room; 1 box at a time (Priority III).

Conditions Governing Audiovisual Access

Some audiovisual recordings in this collection have been digitized. Researchers may access materials in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Ownership and Literary Rights

The Alfred Balk papers are the physical property of the Newberry Library. Copyright may belong to the authors or their legal heirs or assigns. For permission to publish or reproduce any materials from this collection, contact the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at

Biography of Alfred Balk

Iowa-born, Northwestern-educated journalist.

Alfred Balk was born July 24, 1930, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and grew up in Muscatine and Rock Island, Iowa. He began his journalism career as a high school sports reporter for the Rock Island Argus, and continued writing while a student at Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism. He also worked as a newswriter for WBBM-TV while in college. In 1952 Alfred Balk married Phyllis Munter, whom he met in high school when they both participated in a radio broadcast program designed to connect students from rival schools. The Balks had two daughters, Laraine and Diane.

After college Alfred Balk served in the United States Army, and was stationed in Japan during 1954-1955. He began freelancing for magazines while in Japan, and also wrote for a variety of military newspapers during his service. Upon returning to Chicago, he spent a year as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, and also worked briefly in public relations before turning to freelance work full time. During the next eight years, Balk produced articles for Reader's Digest, Harper's, the Saturday Evening Post and Saturday Review, among others. Significant articles for Harper's included reports on corruption in the Illinois legislature, co-authored with Senator Paul Simon, zoning abuses, and tax breaks enjoyed by religious institutions. Reader's Digest contributions covered nursing-home neglect, Great Lakes water issues, and threatened parkland areas. For The Saturday Evening Post, Balk collaborated with Alex Haley for an article about Black Muslims and the Nation of Islam, and also exposed the racist practice of real estate "blockbusting," which led to a landmark 1972 civil court decision protecting journalists' rights to source confidentiality. Other Post articles included the fallout shelter craze of the 1950s and a young minister's story on leaving the ministry.

In 1966, Alfred Balk took a job as Feature Editor and Editor-at-Large of Saturday Review, and the family moved to New York City. Balk spent four years with SR and then took over editorship of Columbia Journalism Review, where he converted the magazine from a quarterly to a bi-monthly publication, developed a long-range advertising business plan, and co-edited a 10th anniversary anthology. Balk worked with CJR until 1973, then moved on to World Press Review, a monthly foreign press digest which succeeded Atlas magazine. In twelve years with WPR, Balk also served as publisher, initiated the International Editor of the Year award, and guided the magazine through a number of business and editorial issues. From 1989-1991 Balk was managing editor of IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He left the magazine world to join the faculty of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, from which he retired in 1994. The Balks returned to the Chicago area in 1999, settling in Huntley, Illinois.

During the course of his career, Alfred Balk also published seven books: The Religion Business (1968); The Free List: Property Without Taxes (1971); Our Troubled Press: Ten Years of Columbia Journalism Review (co-authored with James Boylan, 1971); A Free and Responsive Press (1973); The Myth of American Eclipse: The New Global Age (1990); Movie Palace Masterpieces: Saving Syracuse's Lowes' State/Landmark Theatre (1998); and The Rise of Radio, from Marconi through the Golden Age (2006).

Alfred Balk dedicated much of his long career to improving the media. He served on a task force for the Twentieth Century Fund charged with establishing the National News Council, and was an Executive Committee member of the American Society of Magazine Editors and Overseas Press Club. Balk also consulted for the Ford Foundation and the John and Mary Markle Foundation on media issues, as well as providing media commentary for Nieman Reports, Editor & Publisher, CBS Morning News, and other journalism outlets.

Alfred Balk died of cancer at his home in Huntley, Illinois, on Thanksgiving Day, 2010.


12.5 Linear Feet (31 boxes)


Papers of Iowa-born and Northwestern-educated journalist Alfred Balk, documenting his career, first as a Chicago newswriter for WBBM, reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and freelance contributor to major national magazines, and later as an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, World Press Review, Saturday Review, and IEEE Spectrum, and faculty member at Columbia and Syracuse. Includes correspondence, working files for his freelance articles, his books and other writings, together with files relating to his editorial positions.


Papers are organized in the following series:

Series 1: Correspondence, 1952-2009
Boxes 1-4
Series 2: Career, 1953-2010
Boxes 5-24
Series 3: Volunteer & Foundation Work, 1960-2009
Boxes 25-28
Series 4: Personal, 1941-2007
Boxes 29-30
Series 5: Photographs and Audiovisual, 1955-2008
Box 31

Collection Stack Location

1 4 2


Gift of Alfred Balk, 2010.

Processed by

Kelly Kress, 2011.

Inventory of the Alfred Balk papers, 1941-2010, bulk 1953-1993
Kelly Kress
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Newberry Library - Modern Manuscripts and Archives Repository

60 West Walton Street
Chicago Illinois 60610 United States