By Tessa Solomon
Outside Leslie Yazel’s office window at Real Simple magazine — where last October she ascended as editor-in-chief — the Hudson River was obscured by snow. Along the East Coast, fierce winds felled power lines, and cars stalled for hours on the interstates. Manhattan weathered the Nor’easter with the city’s steadfast stoicism; inside Real Simple’s office, staff were intent to task.
From The Daily Iowan to Cosmopolitan, Yazel has emerged as a mainstay in the media landscape.
“It’s easy to get lost trying to track it,” she said, almost apologetic in regard to her cross-continental résumé. It’s best then to begin at the start: the slap of a newspaper against her childhood porch in Des Moines.
“One of my first memories was sitting on [my dad’s] lap, trying to read his newspaper,” she said.
Without irony, she describes “the miracle of the paper.”
“There was news from China, from California arriving at my door in this compact form,” Yazel said. “But it’s when you get older that you realize there is someone who makes this. That idea of being ‘in the know’ first was tantalizing.”
There’s a universal resonance to her sentiment. In life, we pursue what captivates our wonder; journalists seek a spot near history’s movers.
Yazel arrived at the University of Iowa while then-president George H. W. Bush waged the Gulf War. Campus was divided: Every day at noon, liberal protesters decried the conflict, Young Republicans lauded the president’s initiative. Yazel covered the turmoil in her self-made “protest beat.”
She admits early in our conversation the importance of luck. (“A lot of my career was right time, right place.”) But enthusiasm and enterprise appear as evenly critical to success. Soon after spearheading the DI’s war coverage, she was on the road for the Des Moines Register as its student correspondent. With a paper map wrapped around the steering wheel, she navigated to assignments: murder trials, the murky aftermath of 1993’s great flood.
“When I started as a reporter, I loved being out in the field,” Yazel said. “I always thought, I would hate to be stuck in the newsroom all day opposed to being outside, meeting people.”
Still, she concedes, her shift into editing was inevitable. It was just a better fit.
“You have to have a level of caring in people’s careers and a willingness to do what needs to be done to make them successful,” she said.
Her descriptions — “caretaker and conduit” — are apt. If field reporting is hunger, editing is patience and vision.
Yazel served as a deputy editor at The Wall Street Journal and in the Style section of The Washington Post. She also held editorial positions at brands including Seventeen, Glamour, and Maxim. In 2014, she started as director of editorial content at Cosmopolitan.
In October 2016, Yazel succeeded Kristin van Ogtrop, Real Simple’s editor of 13 years. Van Ogtrop was one of the longest-working chief’s in Time Inc.’s history (now owned by Meredith Corp.), and Yazel had a multiplatform audience of 17.8 million to inherit.
“There is a necessity to represent diverse, modern women. Women’s lives are more complex than ever,” she said. “The core of what we do is helping people navigate a complicated world and an increasingly divided world.”
Her mark is found, in part, among the stories she champions: articles on surviving student-loan debt, confessionals on sexual assault. There is a responsibility, she said, to create meaningful content.
Women’s interest magazines haven’t made up the even bulk of her career, but those brands have a singular presence in readers’ collective memory: mom flipping for recipes in Real Simple, Cosmo sex tips passed in whispers among friends.
At Real Simple, readers mail her their favorite Bible quotes; some share suggestions and anecdotes. There is an unexpected intimacy to the exchange.
Speaking on it, her voice is relaxed but the lesson is well-received.
“When the audience reaches out,” Yazel said, “I take the time to listen.”