In Depth

J-Schools Making Mac Laptops a Requirement

By Allison J. Waldman

Journalism schools appear to be taking sides in the ongoing Mac-versus-PC debate, and Mac looks to have the edge.

Based on the fact that Apple Computer’s Mac products are the industry standard in most art departments and production houses, schools are choosing Apple products as required tools for students.

The University of Florida, for instance, has decided to ask all incoming students in the department of journalism to have as basic equipment a MacBook, a camcorder and a digital recorder. The price for all that is around $1,500, but it is a cost the school has determined is a necessity, as much as the price of text books.

According to William McKeen, department of journalism chair at the University of Florida, “We’ve been talking for years about a laptop requirement. We could never agree on it because part of it was economic. We didn’t want to be a program just for rich kids. But the prices are such that we could have an equipment package as part of our requirement for being a major in our department. That’s important because it’s not a university requirement; it’s just a requirement in the department of journalism.”

The choice of the Apple laptop instead of a PC was purely practical. “The MacBook seemed to have the software that we thought our students should be able to use,” McKeen said. “It’s having an effect on our college, because now the other departments have to decide whether they want the same sort of packages.” The public relations department at UF is also poised to go all-Mac, he said.

But the University of Florida isn’t alone in choosing Mac. “We had a model in the University of Missouri school of journalism,” said Mindy McAdams, a UF professor who’d been part of the curriculum panel that made the decision to designate Macs. “What we’re doing is not cutting-edge. We agreed that students had to have a laptop and they had to have the software so they could actually learn how to do things, so that when they go out into the field they will be able to do what’s expected of them.”

University of Missouri doesn’t require students to choose Macs, but recommends it. In 2009, almost 100 percent of incoming freshmen chose Apple computers at UM. On its Web site, UM spells out the school’s first choice for students: “The faculty has designated Apple Computer as its preferred provider for two primary reasons: (1) Apple’s OS X operating system is based on Unix, which makes these computers far less susceptible to viruses than other computers. Viruses are a serious problem on university campuses. (2) Apple MacBook and MacBook Pro computers come bundled with iLife, a suite of applications ideal for learning the basics of photo editing, and audio and video editing.”

At UF for the past 10 years, students have needed to have access to a computer, and “,90 percent of incoming students have a laptop; we’re just now specifying which kind,” said McKeen. “Parents actually call and want to know exactly what the students have to have. This will probably be more popular with parents and students because we’re being very specific.”

In the mass communications department at Oklahoma City University, Apple products are also the computer of choice. Rod Jones of the school’s media relations department said, “We provide three computer labs for our students and all of these contain Mac computers. However, students are not required to purchase (Macs). We simply provide Mac computers because they are the industry standard.

“The majority of newspapers, magazines, graphic design firms, advertising agencies, PR firms, broadcast production companies, stations, etc. use the Macintosh platform,” he added. “We have used Mac products for almost 25 years. We are only trying to educate our students on the platform they’ll likely use in their media careers, especially in the creative media arts.”

Considering that Apple has an “in” with educators, who recognize that Macs are the industry standard, the company does not cater to colleges and universities with special deals. “The University of Florida has not made a deal with Apple,” said McAdams. “There’s been a lot of verbal back and forth, but no deal yet. The dean has to make that deal.”

Even if students are not offered discounts at the Apple Store in the mall or online, UF is committed to the new policy. “The requirement is in place, the deal is not. Once it’s published in the 2010/2011 catalog, its law,” she said.

There is the question of whether the school or the student should be required to provide the tools for the job because in many “real world” situations, news professionals — a vast number of whom are now freelancers — have to supply their own equipment.

“When students don’t own their own tools, they run into the lab an hour before something’s due and then they run out of time and they’re frustrated,” said McAdams. “We realized that they needed to own their stuff. Not just the laptop, but also the software, an audio recorder and a camcorder. This is exactly like a textbook requirement. These are the tools you must have to do journalism.”

UF maintains a PC presence in its labs and doesn’t discourage students from using Windows-based equipment. “We’re still a PC college in terms of our labs. We like that in a certain way. We’d like our students to be conversant in both Mac and PC. The four main labs for writing, editing and production are all PC,” said McKeen.

But for the junior- and senior-level journalism students, Macs will be the future.

“It is the industry standard. You can do word processing on anything, but the Mac is for designing, for editing. I converted to a Mac a couple of years ago and there is no going back. Apple does it so well. We don’t want to lay too much money on the students, but an iPhone would also be a great requirement because it’s the perfect tool for journalists.”

For now, however, UF will keep to the MacBook, camcorder and digital recorder requirement, and it justifies its choice.

“It’s a practical consideration for the working life of a journalist. If they do not know how to troubleshoot, maintain and take care of their own tools, they aren’t going to be able to work in this business,” McAdams said. “What kind of preparation are we giving them if they don’t know how to use their tools?”