Who is Stephen Petranek?

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more — covering stories you won’t hear about anywhere else.

Earlier in Stephen’s career, for example, he was flying his little plane some 15–20 miles from his home in Rochester, N.Y., when he looked down and saw these giant silver boxes. These giant boxes were actually small buildings that FEMA would load onto trains and send out after a natural disaster. Unlike today’s trailers, four or five modules combined to make a townhouse. These Stirling homes as they were called were the lead product of Stirling Homex Corp., the first company to do truly manufactured assembly-line housing. The company was also one of the hottest stocks on the New York Stock Exchange.

One day, the stock of Stirling Homex Corp. would be $15; the next, $60. They issued four IPOs over the course of about five years, and the whole time, shareholders were getting ripped off. Nobody knew it at the time, of course, until Stephen landed his plane, went home, drove in his car to the spot where he saw these things and checked it out. The unsold housing units were being labeled as “unbilled receivables” and counted as income. In reality, 80% of production was unsold units stockpiled by the factory. He persuaded a company officer to come clean about two different sets of books.

In a major investigative effort funded by his employer, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Stephen wrote more 20 articles, which were published as a special report starting on the front page every day for four days. Then 25 indictments and five convictions later, the Stirling brothers as co-founders and owners made their escape by flying south in the company jet, never to be heard from again. For his efforts, Stephen was given the prestigious John Hancock Award, which many consider to be the Pulitzer Prize of financial writing. Needless to say, Stephen has a history of separating the legitimate investment opportunities from those designed by charlatans.

After the Stirling brothers saga, Stephen moved to Miami, where he was appointed editor-in-chief of The Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic. There he assigned article after article that uncovered corruption and wrongdoing in south Florida. He shook things up so much that at one point, he was assigned bodyguards and his car had to be checked for explosives. Afterward, he opted to redo The Washington Post’s Sunday magazine, where he worked with numerous famous investigative writers, including Bob Woodward, who helped uncover the Watergate scandal.

Afterward, Stephen covered science and nature, politics and economics at Time Inc.’s Life magazine. He frequently assigned articles to Gary Smith, whom some consider to be the best magazine writer in the U.S. Stephen and Gary convinced President Jimmy Carter to cooperate with a major profile — the first time Carter had given a journalist more than 15 minutes of his time since leaving office more than a decade earlier. Eventually, Smith was able to spend weeks with Carter, including an extensive trip to Africa. The resulting article was a bombshell.

Life liked Stephen so much they were convinced to change the color of their famous logo from red to green for only one issue in their whole history, for the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, a special issue Stephen spearheaded. One of his favorite achievements at Life was convincing one of the top 10 architects in the world to design the “Life Dream House” each year. It was a special series Stephen invented that sold thousands of house plans and went on for several years even after Stephen left Life. Atlanta, Ga., decided to feature the first Life Dream House, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, now the dean of architecture at Yale, as part of that year’s Olympics.

Then, Time Inc. chose Stephen to head up the only successful effort to turn a TV show into a magazine: This Old House. The magazine was nominated for numerous National Magazine Awards in photography, design, features and more.

Stephen was also editor-in-chief of Discover, the world’s largest science magazine at the time. Even with about a million and a half subscribers, the magazine was in big trouble. Disney’s then CEO Michael Eisner asked Stephen to reinvent the magazine from top to bottom. Discover was also nominated for numerous National Magazine Awards, and under Stephen it not only became the leading science magazine in the world, but permanently surpassed Scientific American for newsstand sales.

Based on his work on Discover, Stephen gave one of the most original and most watched TED talks of all time. You can Google his talk, 10 Ways the World Could End, or find it at TED.com. Contrary to first impressions, it is a remarkably optimistic view of the future — but if you disagree, you can always Google his presentation 10 Things to Be Optimistic About.

Now Stephen is editor of Breakthrough Technology Alert, for which he finds the investment opportunities that create true value and move the human race forward. He’s working on a book titled The Flood, about the threat to America of climate change and rising sea level.


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