- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Robert J. Dowling, who carried The Hollywood Reporter to great heights during his 17-year run as the trade paper’s classy publisher and editor-in-chief, has died. He was 83.
Dowling died Friday at his home in Santa Monica after a short battle with cancer, a family spokesperson announced.
Dowling joined THR in September 1988, taking over from Tichi Wilkerson, widow of the newspaper’s founder, William R. Wilkerson, after she sold the company to BPI Communications for $26.7 million.
The publication saw huge growth under Dowling amid an explosion in media coverage of Hollywood, and he helped reshape THR into a fierce, underdog rival to the industry’s other five-days-a-week trade, Daily Variety.
THR’s Key Art Awards program (now known as the Clio Awards), its annual Women in Entertainment breakfast — and the accompanying Sherry Lansing Award — and its Next Generation initiative thrived under his leadership and remain an important part of today’s THR.
Other innovations under his stewardship included bringing THR onto the internet in 1995 and launching the digital THR East, which served readership on the East Coast via a PDF edition; a daily Oscar Screening Guide; a production database to track the progress of films and TV shows; a focus on international news; and THR, Esq., a legal blog first led by Matthew Belloni.
He also wrote impactful Page 1 editorials under the “Trade Winds” banner, a tradition that had begun with Billy Wilkerson, while embracing the technological changes that roiled Hollywood during his tenure.
“I am grateful I got a chance to talk to Mr. Dowling recently. We talked about his tenure at THR and made plans to get together and chat about his experiences,” said Nekesa Mumbi Moody, THR‘s editorial director. “I regret we were never able to meet, and I am so appreciative of how encouraging he was to me. He made it very clear how much he loved THR, and we are indebted to his wonderful contributions.”
In December 2005, with THR owned by Dutch media conglomerate VNU, the New York native resigned to become a consultant and president of his own Bob Dowling Group. He was succeeded by Tony Uphoff, who lasted less than a year in the job. THR in its daily form would never be the same.
“During planning for the next five years, they looked around the room, and when they got to me it wasn’t quite so clear,” he told the Los Angeles Times when he left. “Nobody was the catalyst; it just kind of got to that spot.”
THR, since 1930 the first Hollywood daily trade paper, published its last daily print edition on Oct. 29, 2010, and transitioned to a glossy weekly.
Robert Joseph Dowling was born on Long Island on Sept. 16, 1939. He was given up by his birth mother and spent his first three years in a series of foster homes before his final adoption. He said the sense of unease this created would drive his lifelong capacity to instinctively recognize motivations and quickly assess situations.
As he described in his 2019 memoir My Life … And Then Some, selling became second nature to him because of his ability to empathize with those on the other side of the deal.
He attended Villanova University, then beginning in his 20s became editor and publisher of a variety of publications, including American Druggist, High-Tech Marketing, Menswear and Sports Marketing News. As he was the first to admit, he generally knew little about the industry he being brought into. “I was always launching something or improving something,” he said.
He moved his family from Westport, Connecticut, to Los Angeles to join THR, first as president, then as publisher and editor-in-chief. He took more than 300 visits with the leaders of the film, television, music and live entertainment industries in his first year on the job.
Longtime Hollywood publicist Stan Rosenfield remembered when Dowling called early in his tenure, asking to stop by.
“He came, and when he spoke, we listened. I mean LISTENED,” Rosenfield wrote in a statement. “It was a very dynamic session, and he told us about the new direction he wanted to take the paper. He illustrated his ideas by visual examples. He took the paper to that direction.”
Stephen Galloway, the longtime THR writer and editor and now dean of the film school at Chapman University, said Dowling was driven by an endless curiosity and desire to understand things better and deeper. He called him “a person of enormous integrity,” which he discovered soon after starting full-time at THR in the mid-1990s.
“I’d heard that the co-head of a major agency was leaving the company but didn’t know why,” he said. “The reason, it turned out, was that he’d been caught having sex under a table at the office party, and now his wife was threatening to strip him of half his ownership.
“When the agent found out I was asking questions, he insisted on seeing Bob, stormed into our building and demanded that I be fired. I’d only been there four months, but Bob stood by me, even when the agency pulled half a million dollars in advertising, and he never mentioned it again, except with a smile.”
In 2001, THR editor Anita M. Busch, labor reporter David Robb and executive film editor Beth Laski quit at various times after Dowling decided to not publish a story about allegations of unethical behavior by THR party columnist George Christy.
Dowling said he thought the issue was best handled by human resources. THR eventually did publish a story about Christy, who was suspended; he resigned five months later.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Juanita; sons Michael (and his wife, Gia), Matthew (Anna) and Rob (Diane); grandchildren PJ, Larissa, Lena, Devan, Ella, Miles and Radley; and his dog, K.C. Memorial arrangements are pending.
He was a longtime member of the Bel-Air Country Club.
Said his family: “He was a man of uncommon moral character and integrity, a creative thinker and a powerful leader who possessed an unparalleled skill to reduce the complicated to the simple. He found a goldmine of logic in analogies, metaphors and theories — what [we] came to call ‘Bobisms’ — and would share them easily and often without provocation.”
Dowling expressed immense pride in the performance of the THR team led by editor Howard Burns on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “On the most tragic day in American history, the staff of The Hollywood Reporter published one of its most unforgettable issues in its history,” he said. He posted a photo of Page 1 on Facebook on Sept. 11 every year. The issue was 16 pages and published without ads.
In August 2020 on a THR alumni page on Facebook, Dowling wrote: “In my entire 40-plus-year career, I never worked with such a wonderful, professional, talented and dedicated [group of] people. I felt we were a family and the paper was our child, and it was our responsibility to protect it, to respect it and make it thrive. As a family, we were unbeatable. I will forever keep all my friends from The Reporter in my heart.”
Editor’s note: Mike Barnes began at THR on the copy desk in 1993 when Dowling was in charge. “You could not ask for a more decent, more supportive guy to work for,” he says.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day