Robert Joseph “Bob” Dowling, the publisher and editor in chief of the Hollywood Reporter for 17 years who helped transition entertainment trade journalism into the digital age, died Dec. 30 in Santa Monica following a short illness. He was 83.
Dowling began his career in magazine publishing while in his 20s, becoming editor and publisher of a variety of publications, including American Druggist, High-Tech Marketing, Menswear and Sports Marketing News. He joined the Hollywood Reporter in 1988 as president before being named publisher and editor-in-chief. He moved his family from Westport, Conn. to Los Angeles to take the position despite having no experience in entertainment or any understanding of how the business worked.
Throwing himself into the job with energy and humility, Dowling took more than 300 meetings with the leaders of the film, television, music and live entertainment industries in his first year on the job, educating himself about each realm from the inside. A series of innovations, special editions and events spearheaded by Dowling — including a major ramping up of international coverage — led the Reporter into closer competition with Variety throughout his time with the publication.
Dowling also pushed to create the first online presence for any Hollywood trade publication in 1995 with the launch of THR.com. Dowling oversaw the publishing of a special issue on Sept. 12, 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, when editors produced a 16-page, ad-free paper during the height of the chaos caused by the unprecedented terrorist attack on U.S soil.
Born on Long Island on Sept. 16, 1939, Dowling was given up by his birth mother and spent his first three years in a series of foster homes before his final adoption. Dowling met his wife, Juanita Rich, in 1965, and together they raised three sons.
Dowling was well-liked by THR staffers during his tenure. He revamped and expanded the editorial operation, adding reporters and pushing the newspaper to deliver more substantial journalism. He also presided over THR’s successful year-long 75th anniversary celebration in 2005. He left the publication at the end of that year as THR’s parent company once again changed hands.
A low note for Dowling at THR came in 2001 when the paper’s longtime gossip columnist, George Christy, became wrapped up in scandal and a Screen Actors Guild investigation. The issue stemmed from allegations that Christy used his industry connections to persuade producers to give him small roles in movies — scenes that often didn’t make the final cut — in order to qualify for SAG health care coverage. There were other unflattering revelations about how Christy operated behind the scenes that eventually led to the columnist’s ouster and the end of his photo-filled “The Great Life” column, which ran twice a week on the inside backpage when THR was still a Monday-Friday daily publication. Christy died in 2020 at age 93.
Dowling took the reins of THR in 1988 from Tichi Wilkerson, who was the widow of THR founder William “Billy” Wilkerson. Tichi Wilkerson orchestrated the sale of THR to then-Billboard owner BPI Communications, which recruited Dowling for the publisher and EIC role.
Dowling penned THR’s page-one TradeViews column on and off throughout his tenure. He also built up THR’s Key Art Awards franchise honoring movie marketing campaigns into a significant annual awards event. He smartly recruited the heads of marketing for each of the major studios to serve on a council that administered the awards, which were among the first to focus on the role that marketing and advertising plays in the success of a film.
Most recently, Dowling ran his own Bob Dowling Group shingle. He produced a number of industry conferences that reflected his longtime interest in the intersection of technology and entertainment.
In addition to his wife of more than 50 years, Dowling is survived by sons Rob, Michael and Matthew; and seven grandchildren: PJ, Larissa, Lena, Devan, Ella, Miles and Radley.
(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)