Christopher Smith, clinical professor of communication and founder of the Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship (M{2e}) program.
Christopher Smith, clinical professor of communication and founder of the Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship (M{2e}) program.
Photo courtesy of Salaam Coleman Smith.

In Memoriam: Christopher Smith, 55

Christopher Smith, clinical professor of communication and founder of the Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship (M{2e}) program, has died at the age of 55. A devoted scholar, teacher and mentor at USC Annenberg for more than 20 years, Smith inspired colleagues and students to innovate and lead through his trailblazing courses and collaborations with leading organizations at the vanguard of an ever-changing media landscape.

Across the doctoral, master’s and undergraduate levels, Smith developed a wide range of inventive curricula, including “Communication, Culture and Capitalism” and “Media, Money and Society,” as well as first-of-their-kind seminars in witnessing, trauma and testimony and the business of popular culture and entertainment. Through his “TV Strategy: From Broadcasting to YouTube” class, in particular, Smith leveraged the school’s alumni network of notable senior executives in the media industry to create and drive unique opportunities for students to conduct original research projects, and to help solve real-world business cases at media companies, including NBCUniversal, Amazon and Roku. Additionally, with his expertise in finance and entrepreneurship, coupled with his gifted ability as a connector, Smith forged lasting partnerships between USC Annenberg and prominent technology companies in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles.

“Chris was deeply committed to his students, helping them acquire the skills to adapt to and engage with the tectonic shifts in the media industry,” said Willow Bay, dean of USC Annenberg. “With remarkable foresight, he established economic literacy and entrepreneurial acumen as cornerstones of the USC Annenberg experience. A much admired and respected colleague and friend to so many at the school, Chris continually challenged all of us to remain on the cutting edge of change.”  

Smith co-founded and directed the interdisciplinary M{2e} program and undergraduate minor, which examines the evolving business models for communication and journalism. Since 2010, M{2e} has provided hands-on opportunities at top companies for students who seek to lead the next wave of change in media and entrepreneurship. This includes the M{2e} @ Work Maymester program that connects students with a variety of L.A.-based companies and businesses at the forefront of media, entertainment and technology.

“Chris was an exceptional teacher,” said Gabriel Kahn, professor of professional practice of journalism and co-director of M{2e}. “His students came away with a deep understanding of the economic forces transforming media and the confidence that they could play a meaningful role in shaping its future.”

Ernest Wilson, former dean of USC Annenberg and professor of communication, worked closely with Smith and Kahn to establish M{2e} and to ensure its vision extended across both the communication and journalism schools.

“One of the joys of being on the USC Annenberg faculty was having Chris as an exceptional colleague and a dear friend,” Wilson said. “He combined great personal warmth and consideration with that rare capacity of powerful truth-telling about things that mattered. Chris was a beloved member of the Trojan Family and he will be greatly missed.”

During the course of his work with M{2e}, Smith also founded the Women’s Leadership Society (WLS), the first professional development organization of its kind at the school. From 2015 to 2021, Smith advised and mentored WLS’ student leaders with offering events, workshops and retreats focused on female professional advancement at the intersection of technology, media and entertainment. 

A passionate thought leader, Smith had a deep commitment to fostering academic discussion and pipeline development around entrepreneurship and technology with a keen focus on closing gaps of opportunity and enabling participation in the 21st-century economy for women, people of color and other historically disadvantaged groups.   

“Chris led with intelligence, integrity and charm,” said Hector Amaya, director of the School of Communication. “We all looked up to him for we could always find in his words wisdom, care and a strong sense of justice.”

Smith joined USC Annenberg’s faculty in 2002 and among his first students was actress and activist Sophia Bush. In 2019, Bush interviewed Smith for her podcast Work in Progress, recalling Smith as her “favorite professor of all time.”

“Professor Smith is the reason why I love journalism so much,” Bush said. “And why I see the value in journalism and social justice working hand in hand. … He is fascinating, brilliant and so thought-provoking.”

University Professor Geoffrey Cowan fondly recalls hiring Smith when he was dean of USC Annenberg, and the immediate positive impact Smith’s expertise provided students.

“Chris brought an insight and understanding of the economics of the communication industry that enriched both the school and the lives and values of generations of our students,” Cowan said. 

Smith’s dedicated service extended to both university-wide and school initiatives. Smith was selected to serve on the USC Board of Trustees Development Committee and was most recently appointed chair of USC Annenberg’s Faculty Council. Smith also served in roles on curriculum and faculty search committees, students’ doctoral dissertation and master’s thesis committees, and supervised numerous undergraduate and graduate directed research projects over two decades. Additionally, Smith was invited by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for “What Matters to Me and Why,” a talk during which Smith shares reflections on his early personal and academic influences, as well as his impressions on media, culture and race in America.

A global intellectual voice, Smith served as faculty-in-residence and delivered research presentations at leading universities in Shenzhen, China; Johannesburg, South Africa; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Oxford, England. Smith was dedicated to cultivating global opportunities for USC that he believed would benefit the university in the future.  

With his research published in books and journals, including Social Text and the International Journal of Communication, Smith was a highly regarded expert and commentator for national and international media outlets such as NBC, ABC, NPR, the BBC and Reuters.

Smith earned his doctoral and master’s degrees in media and cultural studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Chicago. Born in New Jersey, Smith graduated from Montclair Kimberley Academy. Prior to joining USC Annenberg, he served as the director of primary research for Ruder Finn Public Relations in New York City. 

Smith is survived by his wife, Salaam Coleman Smith, their children Asa and Nina, and an extended community of family and friends. 

USC Annenberg will host an on-campus event in honor of Professor Smith in the Fall.  Information will be forthcoming.