First of all, thanks to everybody for their input. It has helped me a lot, and I think I'm closer to the next design template for the Conversations on Ghibli blog. In fact, I have another short list of contenders that I think are all improvements over the first batch.
I already have a favorite among these, but I'll keep that to myself for now. I'd like to hear what you think. As you can see, all of these are 3-column layouts, since that's where I'm going. Professionalism, cleanliness, and ease of navigation are my primary concerns. Apart from one or two templates from the first batch, I'll most likely choose one of these.
When looking these over, don't think too long or too hard. Just behave like any casual web surfer. Does the design catch your eye? Does it make you want to stay? Are the colors the right combination? Just go with your gut instinct and you'll be fine.
Again, my thanks to everyone for taking part in the blog update.