When I was a young reporter in the 1970s, one of my assignments was covering the troubled U.S. steel industry, which was taking a beating from new technologies (so-called "mini-mills"), cheap imports and outdated union work rules. Thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs. Steel making was then considered the backbone of an advanced economy. It symbolized a nation's power and technological stature.

To the men who worked the mills, the vulnerability of American steel makers was entirely unexpected and, in many ways, incomprehensible. I never imagined then — I doubt anyone did — that newspaper reporters and editors would become the steelworkers of the 21st century.

We are being overwhelmed by technological changes that we cannot control. Newspapers are being eclipsed as major social, economic and political institutions. The latest evidence of this is the sudden sale of The Washington Post, controlled by the Graham family since 1933, to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, for $250 million. There's a transfer of status, prestige and power from the old to the new. Steel's fate, its fall from industrial pre-eminence, is shared by newspapers.