Alfred Balk, the second editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, died in November at the age of eighty. Al, like me a native of Iowa, was my successor as editor, serving from 1969 to 1973. He arrived with strong credentials as a magazine editor and reporter, most notably for a Saturday Evening Post article, “Confessions of a Block-Buster,” on the practice of using racial fears to move real estate; it led to a court case on anonymity of his sources, which he won.
As an editor, he worked with determination, often stubbornness, turning the Review into a reporters’ magazine, tougher and grittier. A tough article by Richard Reeves on the collapse of the Newark Evening News led to a libel suit in which CJR was ultimately found blameless. As other journalism reviews burst forth, in a period of ferment, Al befriended them, reprinting many of their best stories, treating them as allies rather than competitors.
He was also a key figure in the creation of the experimental National News Council, and set up CJR to print the council’s decisions, which it did for several years. On his watch came an anthology drawn from the first ten years of CJR, titled Our Troubled Press (1971), which we edited together.
Most of all, Al wanted to make the Review bigger and better. He increased its frequency from quarterly to six a year, sought to enlarge its circulation and financial resources, and eventually, feeling hampered, proposed to sever the magazine’s ties with the Columbia altogether. That, as you can see, did not happen. Later, he created World Press Review, and wrote or edited a number of books, the last being The Rise of Radio—from Marconi through the Golden Age (2006), which Mike Wallace praised for its “stunning research.”
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. December 3 at the First Congregational Church of Huntley, Illinois. Contributions can be sent to Hospice of Northeastern Illinois, in Barrington, or The Newberry Library, Al Balk Memorial, in Chicago.James Boylan is CJRs founding editor. Tags: Alfred Balk, Behind the News, CJR, Columbia Journalism Review, obituary