Two California billionaires could reinvigorate the lacklustre auction for Tribune with less than a week to go before the deadline with a possible improved bid for the media group.

Sam Zell, the Chicago billionaire, remains the frontrunner to buy the company, which owns nine newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, 23 television stations and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Mr Zell has offered about $33 per share for Tribune, valuing the company at about $8bn. The key feature of the deal is that it would be funded by a yet-to-be-established employee stock option plan, which would limit taxes.

However, Eli Broad and Ron Burkle sent a letter to a special committee of Tribune directors over the weekend, complaining that they had not been given access to the same information as Mr Zell when they submitted an earlier bid. The letter indicated that the two billionaires, who made their fortunes in real estate and supermarkets, respectively, might be willing to improve their offer with more information from the company.

The letter raises the prospect that Tribune could finally stoke some competition among bidders after a six-month auction that has generated little enthusiasm and mostly served to underline investors’ deep concerns about the future of the newspaper industry. However, prolonging the process, which Tribune had planned to conclude by the end of the week, could also raise the risk that Mr Zell’s offer might evaporate.

Tribune and Messrs Broad and Burkle did not immediately return calls on Monday. The company agreed to consider strategic options, including a sale, in September after a sustained campaign from one of its largest shareholders, the Chandler family.

Since then, the process has been marred by a drumbeat of bad news from the newspaper industry, particularly the precipitous decline in print advertising reported by several large newspaper groups in February.

Mr Broad and Mr Burkle originally expressed interest in acquiring the Los Angeles Times, and returning it to local, private ownership. However, they subsequently joined forces and mounted a bid for the entire company. Their offer, submitted in January, valued the company at $31 per share. It would have paid investors a $27-per-share dividend, and left them with an equity stub. The transaction would have added more than $10bn in debt to the company – something that has worried Tribune directors at a time when revenues have been under pressure.

If Tribune does not accept an outside bid, the company is expected to pursue a so-called “self-help” plan, in which it will issue debt and pay a dividend to investors.

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