What makes a good article: Editorial guidelines

The following guidelines are meant to provide boell.de with a unified look and feel and make sure that high journalistic standards are met.

  1. Headline
  2. Teaser
  3. Image
  4. Contents & Style
  5. Web links
  6. Licencing
  7. CMS / haven /keywords
  8. Spelling
  9. Formatting
1. Headline

Our homepage boell.de is the website of a foundation – we’re not a news organisation. Every day our departments and offices submit a few texts that are between 3,000 and 20,000 characters in length. Boell.de is not a news site churning out 20 jazzed up wire service stories per hour – and, consequently, headlines do not have to conform to news standards (“human rights activist X arrested in Y”). Such headlines may be the reason for publishing an article, yet they ignore the fact that the stories we publish provide in-depth background information.

Depending on the type of text, the headline needs to have a corresponding slant, meaning a detailed background analysis has to have a headline that distinguishes it from, for example, commentary.

One example – a very detailed report about human rights in Pakistan is submitted (on the occasion of the above-mentioned arrest of an activist). It comes with the rather rambling headline

  • Dark clouds in the country of the pure

A better headline would be:

  • Human rights in Pakistan: A history of oppression

(in headlines, the word following a colon should be capitalised)

Titles employing ‘either – or’ tend to be boring and cliché, and so are rhetorical questions (‘X – Blessing or curse?’). It is always preferable to find out what an article is really about and then choose an appropriate headline – which may very well be judgemental.

For example, instead of the headline

  • India's budget unveiled


  • India's budget unveiled: A wasted opportunity

It is even better to avoid pigeonholing altogether, that is, terms followed by a colon or dash, and instead to use headlines that are not chopped up but form a phrase that is easy to read. For longer background stories a full phrase may work well, for example:

  • How your smart phone is transmitting your personal information to intelligence agencies

Such brief sentences make good headlines. Most importantly, however, a good headline should be descriptive. Ideally, two important key words and the name of the country in question are part of the headline. This matters, as articles receive most clicks via search.

For example, a title such as

  • „Re:Union“: A documentary about the new migration in Europa

may sound dull, yet it is effective regarding search – which is what matters most.

For interviews poignant and polarising quotes often make a good headline. If possible, the interviewee’s name may also be given or otherwise should be mentioned in the teaser.

2. Teaser

Teaser text should be concise (max. 200 characters). A teaser has to signal clearly the article’s contents, mentioning, for example, current events and giving a glimpse of the whole story. Here’s an example:

  • Azerbaijani human rights activist Leyla Yunus has been arrested in Baku. Since last year’s presidential elections, authorities have been clamping down on the opposition.

It is always possible to improve phrasing, however, in combination with the headline “Human rights in Azerbaijan – A timeline of oppression” this teaser gives the reader all the clues.

Another example

  • Since the beginning of the crisis, a growing number of well-trained young people has moved from Southern Europe to the capitals of the North. The film Re:Union documents how this migration is changing the face of Europe.

One more example:

  • Stereotypes of a savage Kurdistan
    Men in Turkish trousers, downtrodden women, and a leader who is his own biggest fan – we will have to rid ourselves of such stereotypes and finally accept the Kurds as partners.

Combined, headline and teaser should form a unit and provide people with clear clues and an impetus to continue reading.

The teaser, set in bold type, should also be pasted into the text body in order to be displayed on the individual pages. This is important, as otherwise people clicking on a list of search results will not be able to view the teaser.

3. Image

Ideally, an image, alongside headline and teaser, will provide a third stimulus to read on. Finding a good image can be time-consuming. We are using either our own photos or images published under a CC license. Images should be posted in large format (however, not exceeding 2,000 px in width), with an aspect ratio of 3:2 (minimum: 630:420 px), and with a concise caption. Images will be automatically scaled to the size required by users.

Symbolic imagery such as flags and parliament buildings should be avoided. Also, there shouldn’t be too many close-ups of people (especially if they are co-workers). However, good portraits of interesting people are a welcome alternative to landscape shots and protest photos. Whenever suitable images showing women are available these should be chosen over photos showing men.

Photos of street art may also work well, and generally there is nothing wrong with abstract imagery that challenges users. To find an adequate image it is useful to focus on one aspect of the text, as this will simplify the search. For example, an article with the somewhat abstract title “In defence of modernity” and discussing what young people today may or may not make of this world can be illustrated by a young person using her or his smart phone. Plus: There’s nothing wrong with black and white photos – it’s all depending on what is available.

If the motif is obvious, the caption may refer to other aspects of the article, otherwise it should provide a description. Don’t put a period at the end of a caption, as this will be provided automatically by our CMS.

Often it is good to use more than one image – either separately or as a photo gallery. Video and charts may also help to break up the monotony of typeface. In long articles visual cues provide readers with vital orientation. 

4. Contents & Style

The aim of copy-editing is to make an article more focused, intelligible, and concise. Digressions and redundant information should be cut.

Limit the length of paragraphs. On average every three paragraphs a subheading should be inserted. Such subheadings (or subheads) usually tell the user what to expect in subsequent paragraphs and, when scanning the text, provide general orientation. Subheadings should be mostly descriptive, however, now and then a question or a striking quotation may be in order – basically everything that motivates users to read on.

Subheadings in standard articles have a specific format (Heading 3), which has to be used for reasons of search engine optimisation, accessibility, and better orientation.

Quotations that run three lines or more have to be indented to improve readability. As far as possible, footnotes should be converted into web links and inserted in the text body.

Articles dealing in explicit ways with violence should be preceded by a trigger warning, as they may cause trauma for those who have undergone similar experiences. Example:

  • TRIGGERWARNING: article depicts harassment, rape.
5. Web links

Web links can be placed on a word, a number of words, or part of a sentence. However, they should not extend over a number of lines. Usually it is best to make web links very specific and limit their length.

Here’s an example:


  • According to the New York Times...,

as a link on “according” only wouldn’t make sense. A link on

  • New York Times

on the other hand, would most likely lead to the Wikipedia entry for the New York Times.

As this example shows there is no all-encompassing rule for how to use web links. Always ask yourself ‘Is this link meaningful?’ (too many links will confuse users). Also consider the right location and how to keep it concise.

Finally, search engines put a lot of weight on words with web links. Links that are not to a web page but to a PDF file have to be marked accordingly:

  • A new study on sustainable urban development (PDF) provides proof that...

6. Licensing

All contents has to be published with a license. For external authors / photographers this license is part of their contract with the Foundation. The most restrictive license is “all rights reserved,” meaning that no one else may use the image / article in question without prior permission by the author.

Sometimes there’s also a time limit for usage (for example for some images / flyers) and content licensed in such a way has to be taken offline once this time period has expired. Copyrighted images / texts on other websites may only be used by us with the explicit consent of the rights holder. The same applies to radio broadcasts, etc.

As a foundation receiving public funds we do emphasise the use of Creative Commons (CC) licenses. CC is a non-profit organisation that provides model contracts for licensing that define the conditions for using and re-using images, texts, music, video, etc.

Four major aspects are part of each CC license:

  • Attribution (BY): Who’s the author or licensor?

  • Non-commercial (NC): The work and derivative works may only be used for non-commercial purposes.

  • Non-derivative (ND): The work may only be used in its original, integral form and not for derivative works based on it.

  • Share-alike (SA): Licensees may distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work.

These four aspects can be combined in a number of ways, resulting in different licenses. For its own works the Foundation uses the following licenses:

CC BY NC ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

Third parties may only use our texts / audio / images as long as they credit us – and they are not allowed to change them in any way or use them commercially.

CC BY SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Third parties may reuse AND edit our texts / audio / images as long as they credit us and license their new creations under the identical terms.

We also have to observe these licenses when looking for content (photos etc.) ourselves. Images published with “all rights reserved” or without a license may not be used!

The photo website flickr.com provides an advanced search for CC licensed images. Another good source of images is commons.wikimedia.org. We may use almost all types of CC-licensed material, including those for non-commercial use (CC BY-NC-SA). To use images that may not be edited (ND) is difficult, however, as our articles require images with a 3:2 ratio. ‘No editing’ also means no cropping and, as a consequence, we may not use such images unless they already have the ratio needed.

When (re-)publishing images under a CC license, the respective license has to be linked (this is done by selecting the license in our CMS) and, in case of photos, the name of the photographer and a link to the original photo has to be added (for example, a link to the flickr page).

7. CMS / haven group / keywords

Articles have to be assigned a “haven group” that determines the type of sidebar displayed with the article and its content group. In addition, articles should be characterised using keywords, especially the names of the countries they are about.

Always check to see if certain keywords have already been entered into the CMS. When saving new keywords, always use the singular, for example, “protest” instead of “protests.” Keywords allow users to search our site and will result in more Google hits.

8. Spelling

Other than German, English spelling is less regulated and most major publishers and publications rely on their own (or someone else’s) style guides. Having said this, the following should be kept in mind:

Some general guidelines:

  • Technical terms and abbreviations have to be explained / given in full when they first occur.

  • Numbers: Consult the BBC style guide: http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/news-style-guide/article/art201…

  • Percentages and currencies are given using the relevant symbol, i.e. 80% or 80 €.

  • Use the standard quotation marks “...” (not the French ones «»).

  • Use the standard dash – not the long US dash―.

Gender specific / gender neutral language: When writing about specific people use the appropriate word. For example, if a woman chairs a meeting, call her a “chairwoman” not a “chairperson.” On the other hand, when talking about such a position in a non-specific way, use “chairperson” to avoid gender bias.

When writing about groups of people (or abstract groups) use both pronouns (she/he – her/his, etc.)

9. Formatting

Italics are hard to read online, so do avoid them as much as possible. Additional information at the end of a text may be put in italics, for example, This article first appeared in... or Translated from the German by...

Bold typeface is normally only used for the teaser text. A possible exception is certain types of lists for which Heading 3 (subheading format) is too bold.

Do not put names of newspapers, institutions, etc. in italics or in quotation marks. Quotation marks should only be used for organisations with complicated and largely unfamiliar names.